George W. Bush

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BROOKS KRAFT / CORBIS FOR TIME

George W. Bush subscribes to the Great Man theory, the notion that bold leaders rather than impersonal economic and social forces shape the course of history. "It is human choices that move events," he triumphantly declared at his second Inaugural, just 16 months—and a political eternity—ago.

But events have a way of slipping the reins of human control, even of someone as powerful as the U.S. President. So Bush, 59, who launched his second term with the outsize goals of ending tyranny in the world and establishing a permanent Republican majority in America, finds himself with public-disapproval ratings higher than any other President's since Richard Nixon chose resignation over impeachment. The causes of Bush's fall from favor are multiple and compounding: Hurricane Katrina, high gas prices, the Jack Abramoff scandal, the CIA-leak investigation, the Dubai Ports deal, a ballooning deficit and, above all, Iraq. An invasion the President sold as vital to national security is now seen by most Americans as a war of choice—and a bad choice.

Political recovery won't be easy. Other recent Presidents—Reagan, Clinton—weathered second-term scandals and left office with restored popularity. But Bush's fate hinges on an unpopular war, already going into its fourth year, that he probably can't—or won't—quit without a victory that may be unobtainable. Later than most Presidents, he has shaken up his staff, but he has refused to fire his Defense Secretary, whose head is most in demand. And he faces the prospect of losing one or both houses of Congress to the Democrats in November. Yet Bush's time is far from over. Two issues—immigration at home, Iran abroad—pose challenges but also opportunities for successful leadership. And democracy may yet find a home in the Arab world. Bush is already assured a large place in history. What he does next will decide how he is judged by it.

Next: John McCain >>