His response to the 9/11 attacks, and his shift from a domestically focused president to a wartime commander-in-chief, sharply accelerated his transformation into a polarizing figure. In the attacks' immediate aftermath, Americans were united behind hunting down al-Qaida, and voters from both parties rallied heavily in support of Bush. On Capitol Hill, Democrats and Republicans alike voted to use force in Afghanistan and Iraq. Bush's popularity soared.
He had almost universal backing among Republicans then, and while it dipped a bit here and there, he closed out his second term with 75 percent approval among Republicans, according to Gallup. The opposite happened with Democrats. A stunning 84 percent of them backed him after the attacks but it wasn't long before his standing started sliding precipitously to a measly 6 percent by the end of his presidency.
By 2006, the Iraq war was unpopular. In the aftermath of Katrina, so was Bush.
From secret prisons to wiretapping to hard interrogation tactics, Americans ended up deeply divided about Bush's national security policies. Many Democrats opposed them, and many Republicans supported them. People of all stripes grew restless with how much was being spent on the wars, as the federal debt soared and budget deficits grew. Eventually, support sank for the Iraq war and wavered for Afghanistan, with independents, Democrats and even some Republicans fleeing Bush during his final White House years.
Four years after the unpopular president left the helm of a country embroiled in unpopular wars, it's easy to forget that Bush actually had several bipartisan triumphs — the No Child Left Behind education overhaul, the Bush tax cuts and the creation of a program to fight HIV/AIDS in Africa among them. He did make a good-faith, though ultimately unsuccessful, effort to work with Democrats to reform the immigration system. And he sought and obtained the support of both Republicans and Democrats to go to war.
So is the image of a divisive Bush rooted in reality, or is it simply a caricature, a myth built more on personality than policy and peddled by detractors? Was it inevitable, given high levels of polarization and partisanship in our country and a system dominated by the most liberal and conservative among us? And will Bush's fate be the same for any other president if this nation's politics stay this way?
Probably so. Yet Bush himself certainly didn't help matters.
Here's what he said in spring 2006 as the Abu Ghraib prison scandal flared and calls for embattled Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to be fired intensified: "I listen to all voices, but mine is the final decision. ... I'm the decider, and I decide what is best."
Reasonable, perhaps — maybe even the purview of any president. Not too far, in fact, from Harry S. Truman's "The Buck Stops Here." But the way Bush put it conflicted sharply with the broad, inclusive pitch of his first campaign years earlier — and helped build the image of a polarizing, partisan president that still lingers today.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Liz Sidoti is the national politics editor for The Associated Press. Follow her on Twitter: http://twitter.com/lsidoti