Off the ballot but still in voters' minds, President Bush watched election results like the rest of the country Tuesday night and privately told his friends and advisers, "May God bless whoever wins tonight."
Even before one vote was counted, this result was clear: The presidential race was a verdict on the two-term president, too.
Both Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain positioned themselves as agents of change — that is, change from Bush.
The president's approval ratings have hovered near historically low levels — it was just 26 percent in an AP-GfK poll conducted a couple of weeks before Election Day — and he was a factor in voters' decision-making no matter how much he tried to stay out of the race.
In preliminary results from an Associated Press exit poll of voters on Tuesday, Bush and the Democratic-run Congress got low marks from voters. Only about one in four approved of how Bush is handling his job, and Congress got about the same.
The president voted absentee several days ago, so there was no video of him at his precinct, no statements to reporters, no public appearance whatsoever.
Bush spent the early part of his evening in the White House residence, hosting a small dinner with his wife, Laura, in the Old Family Dining Room. Several close friends and members of Bush's senior staff were invited. Bush thanked his guests for their friendship and their work.
White House press secretary Dana Perino said Bush ended his dinner toast this way: "And may God bless whoever wins tonight."
There was, in fact, a celebration for Bush and his guests. Tuesday was the first lady's birthday. The president gave her earrings.
"The president believes tonight is a night to appreciate the strength of our country and our democracy," Perino said.
But for many months, Obama seized on Bush's unpopular standing to make him a political liability for McCain, who in turn separated himself aggressively from the face of his own party as the campaign closed.
The president's image has been such a fixture in anti-McCain ads that it was up to Laura Bush to add a touch of lightness to her husband's woes.
"I'm really looking forward to Election Day," she said at a Republican campaign event in Kentucky on Monday, "partly because it seems like George has been on the ticket this entire year."
In the exit polling, of the voters who said they approved of Bush's performance, about nine in 10 went for McCain. Almost seven in 10 of those opposing Bush broke for Obama.
Also, about half those polled said that McCain would continue Bush's policies — and those with that view went for Obama in big numbers.
The White House purposely went dark on Tuesday, ceding all spotlight to the competitors.
"He realizes this election is not about him," Perino said of Bush heading into voting day.
Tuesday marked the first time in 14 years — a period when Bush twice won the Texas governorship and the presidency — that he was not on the ballot.
Many pundits had no doubt about Tuesday's outcome. Among them: Karl Rove, once of Bush's closest aides and the architect of his two successful presidential runs. On election eve, Rove distributed his last analysis of the electoral map. It predicted Obama winning easily.