WASHINGTON — So how will it end? President Bush is down to his final 100 days in office as of today. Don't expect a quiet fade into the Texas night.
The bleakest economic downturn in decades has changed the dynamic drastically, keeping Bush and his financial team in activist mode to the end.
While the powerful heads of the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve keep making radical moves, no one elected them. Bush is the one charged with reassuring the nation that an abysmal economic period will give way to better days, even if he is long gone from Washington by the time that happens.
Bush will keep speaking about the economy, calling world leaders about it, meeting with business owners, perhaps attending an overseas summit. His final act will be overseeing the $700-billion buyout of devalued assets from banks, in hopes that credit will start flowing to an anxious, weary country.
"It looks like I'm going to have a lot of work to do between today and when the new president takes office," Bush said last week.
The scope of the credit crisis is so vast that it will likely overshadow anything else Bush does before he leaves office on Jan. 20.
"We will stand together in addressing this threat to our prosperity. We will do what it takes to resolve this crisis. And the world's economy will emerge stronger as a result," the president said Saturday in the Rose Garden after meeting with finance ministers from the world's economic powers.
People are panicked about their retirement accounts and the markets are reeling. Behind the daily drumbeat of bleak economic news, Bush leaves behind a national debt that has soared from less than $6-trillion when he took office to more than $10-trillion now. That staggering bill will fall on future generations to pay.
Beyond the financial mess, there is a daunting list of unfinished items for a president who has a history of making bold promises. But hope and time are diminishing.
Before his presidency ended, Bush wanted a Mideast peace deal built around the outlines of a Palestinian state. That is unlikely. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert resigned in a corruption scandal, negotiations stalled, and the same issues that have divided the parties for decades seem as irreconcilable as ever.
The ambitious priority of pushing an international effort to rid North Korea of its nuclear arms has made late progress, but the communist country has a spotty record of following through on its pledges. After North Korea relented on nuclear inspection demands, the United States on Saturday erased it from a terror blacklist.
Perhaps most notably, the United States and Iraq still are without an agreement governing the presence of U.S. forces after Dec. 31, when the U.N. mandate runs out. The two sides are hung up over legal jurisdiction for U.S. troops and contractors, and a time line for U.S. withdrawal.
On top of that, White House staff members are devoting valuable amounts of time to pave the way for the next president.
Bush has made clear to those who work for him that he wants a smooth transition to the next president. In terms of the sheer time and energy involved, Bush counselor Ed Gillespie said, "I suspect the last 100 days are going to feel more like the first 100 days than any of us would have hoped."
The last days of an administration can be filled with desires to wrap up issues, if not desperation.
Michael Green, Bush's former senior adviser on Asia, said he expects no dramatic gestures or concessions from the White House in the pursuit of final deals. He said challenges such as the nuclear threats in North Korea and Iran will be passed on in the best possible position, keeping diplomatic efforts intact.
Meanwhile, just when all his clout was supposed to be gone, Bush has scored some victories.
He signed a civil nuclear cooperation deal with India and won approval for oil drilling off the U.S. coastlines, both of which have lasting implications. The White House holds dim hopes that Congress could take up trade deals with Colombia and South Korea if it holds a lame-duck session after the election.
In what has already been his busiest year of foreign travel, Bush has at least one more trip left. He plans to go to Peru in November for the annual summit of leaders of Pacific Rim nations.
Bush also is expected to do a final review of pardons and commutations. His predecessor, Bill Clinton, pardoned 140 people in the closing hours of his presidency. Don't expect Bush to do that. Gillespie said the president will likely make those decisions "well in advance of leaving office."
It was not so long ago that Bush, after almost eight long years and diminishing public approval, might have seemed on a path for a quiet exit. But then came Russia's war with Georgia, more Gulf Coast hurricanes and the worst financial crisis since the stock market crash of 1929.
Now Bush is out in front of the cameras a lot, talking about what it will take to set up the financial rescue program effectively.
Said Gillespie of Bush: "People will not have any doubt that just because he's at the end of a second term, he's not letting up at all."