DALLAS — His approval ratings are among the lowest for any president in modern U.S. history. He's presiding over the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. He acknowledges that many Americans have repudiated his Republican Party. And he's been utterly eclipsed by a charismatic successor.
Things haven't worked out so well for President Bush. He's banking on a kinder and gentler future.
With the days counting down on Bush's White House lease, plans for the George W. Bush Presidential Library are stepping up as architects finish designs for an edifice here on the campus of Southern Methodist University.
"I'm confident that people will come to change their mind about the president and some of the decisions he made," said Mark Langdale, a longtime Bush friend who heads the foundation overseeing the library's development. "You need time to get past the current news cycle and the prejudices and emotions of the moment."
The estimated $300-million project, situated on prime real estate at the university's entrance, is expected to open in 2013. It will contain the archives of the Bush presidency, a museum celebrating his accomplishments and a policy institute that its backers hope will become a leading Republican think tank.
Yet given the president's unpopularity, some Bush critics wonder whether the facility will turn out to be a historical white elephant. Fundraising for the project has been "very modest," said Dan Bartlett, a former Bush counselor who is acting as a library spokesman.
Langdale said the president was intentionally waiting until he leaves office to start seeking out donors.
"The skeptics could be right: It might be a white elephant," said Benjamin Hufbauer, an art history professor at the University of Louisville in Kentucky and an expert on presidential libraries. "But presidents don't see it that way. . . . Presidents see these as a foundation from which to build a new reputation. It's just the right kind of elephant."
For their part, SMU officials are certain that once they build it, people will come.
"Sometimes the administrations that have the kinds of interesting times that this one has had make for even more research and discussion and debate," said Brad Cheves, the university's vice president for development and external affairs. "That will make it an even more vital and vibrant place."
The complex will certainly be in friendly territory. First Lady Laura Bush is an SMU alum and member of the board of trustees. And although 57% of Dallas County voters went for President-elect Barack Obama in November's election, the precinct that encompasses SMU voted overwhelmingly for Republican John McCain.
The exclusive Preston Hollow neighborhood, about a 10-minute drive from the library and where the Bushes recently purchased a post-White House home worth more than $3 million, was another McCain stronghold.
What's more, most of last year's controversy about the choice of SMU as the site of the library has dissipated. What remains are concerns of some faculty members that the Bush policy institute will become a neoconservative firebase rather than the legitimate scholarly enclave promised by officials of the library foundation and the university.
Just how valuable the entire complex will be to historians remains uncertain, especially given an executive order signed by Bush in 2001 that grants a former president broad discretion to withhold administration documents from the public.
Historians have criticized Bush's order, which overrides national records laws mandating the release of documents 12 years after a president leaves office, and they have urged Obama to reverse it.
Langdale said the Bush museum would not avoid the most divisive episodes of the last eight years, such as the administration's much-criticized response to Hurricane Katrina.
But those controversies may also get some positive historical spin.
"There's an interesting lesson about Katrina and the limitations of government assistance to respond to big natural disasters," Langdale said. "They are acts of God, and they are tough. It's definitely a story line I would not shy away from addressing somehow in the museum."