Leaving office with the highest disapproval rating since Richard Nixon, Mr. Bush said, "You may not agree with some tough decisions I have made, but I hope you can agree that I was willing to make the tough decisions."
A bookend to eight years indelibly marked by terrorism, two wars and recessions, the brief speech offered Mr. Bush one last chance before he leaves office Tuesday to defend his presidency and craft a first draft of his legacy for historians. He spoke from the East Room of the White House with just 112 hours left in office.
It was his final public appearance until he greets President-elect Barack Obama on Inauguration Day at the White House's North Portico.
Mr. Bush called the inauguration of Obama, the first black president, a "moment of hope and pride" for America.
"Standing on the steps of the Capitol will be a man whose story reflects the enduring promise of our land," he said.
(According to CBS News' Maria Gavrilovic, Obama dined out at a Washington, D.C. restuarnt tonight and may not have even watched the Bush speech.)
Mr. Bush's presidency began with the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil and ends with the worst economic collapse in three generations.
"Facing the prospect of a financial collapse, we took decisive measures to safeguard our economy," he said. "These are very tough times for hardworking families, but the toll would be far worse if we had not acted. All Americans are in this together. And together, with determination and hard work, we will restore our economy to the path of growth. We will show the world once again the resilience of America's free enterprise system."
"Reading a speech off a Teleprompter is not President Bush's strongpoint, but the fact that he was addressing a friendly audience in the East Room gave it more warmth," said CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller. "He defended his policies, but admitted there are some things he might have done differently."
"He sounded profoundly grateful to the American people for giving him its greatest honor for two terms," Knoller said.
Mr. Bush emphasized that there had not been another terrorist attack since 9/11. He said that that even early in his term transformed him.
"Most Americans were able to return to life much as it had been before 9/11," Mr. Bush said. "But I never did. Every morning, I received a briefing on the threats to our nation. And I vowed to do everything in my power to keep us safe."
Mr. Bush also prodded the U.S. to lead the cause of freedom and maintain its "moral clarity" in what he described as a choice between good and evil.
"I have often spoken to you about good and evil," he added. "This has made some uncomfortable. But good and evil are present in this world, and between the two there can be no compromise."
For Mr. Bush, the speech was more than a thanks Americans who elected him twice. It was his last chance in office to define his tumultuous presidency in his own, unfiltered terms as he rides off to a quieter life.
"This is less about policy. This is more, I think, about the people that he has seen and the experiences that we've had together," said presidential counselor Ed Gillespie. "I think he wanted to express a little bit of his gratitude."
Mr. Bush and his loyal backers see his record this way: He kept the country safe from attack after terrorism redefined his presidency, cut taxes, freed the people of Afghanistan and Iraq, reformed education, oversaw 52 straight months of job growth, acted decisively when the economy tanked, stuck to principle no matter what his poll numbers, retooled the military and improved federal crisis management after the worst U.S. natural disaster happened on his watch.
To his critics, Mr. Bush wasted the world's goodwill after the 9/11 attacks, got the U.S. into a catastrophic and avoidable Iraq war, presided over a staggering 2.6 million jobs lost in 2008, ran up debt, reacted slowly to Hurricane Katrina, did more dividing than uniting and refused to listen to the will of the people.
Historians say the fairest assessment will come over time. Mr. Bush says accurate short-term history does not even exist.
Yet this much is also clear: The president does care about how the country views his time in office. Right now.
On its Web site, the White House has even gone so far as to post "100 things Americans may not know about the Bush administration record."
Life after the White House will find Mr. Bush in two homes - his beloved ranch in Crawford, Texas, and the new home that first lady Laura Bush picked for them in an affluent Dallas neighborhood. He plans to write a book and run a new policy institute, but also will quickly get off the public stage.
"You just fade out," Mr. Bush told reporters from Texas newspapers last week. "That's fine with me. The faster the fade, the better."