Bush admits mistakes, defends record

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Both the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal and the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq fell into the latter category, he said.

“I don’t know if you want to call those mistakes or not, but things didn’t go as planned, let’s put it that way,” he said.

“Running the Social Security idea right after the ‘04 elections was a mistake,” he said. “I should have argued for immigration reform. … The crisis was not imminent for Social Security as far as many members of Congress was concerned.”

Mr. Bush said he had “thought long and hard about Katrina” and concluded that his decision not to land Air Force One in New Orleans or Baton Rouge the day after the storm was the right choice, because such a move would have diverted police resources away from vital rescue and recovery efforts.

He rejected the notion that the federal government’s response was substandard.

“Don’t tell me the federal response was slow when there was 30,000 people pulled off roofs right after the storm passed,” he said.

Mr. Bush has mentioned all of these shortcomings in recent exit interviews with different reporters but had not lumped them together on any one occasion.

The president acknowledged that North Korea “remains a problem” and that Iran “is still dangerous.” They are the two countries Mr. Bush included in his “axis of evil” - Iraq being the third - against which the president did not take military action.

Mr. Bush said he is concerned that “there might be a highly enriched uranium program” in North Korea, and called on the regime in Pyongyang to allow outside inspectors to verify the cessation of its nuclear weapons program. The North Koreans dragged out negotiations with the U.S. and five other countries over the past two years, and then backed away from key commitments last fall after securing key concessions from the U.S.

The press conference served as one of Mr. Bush’s last moments in the spotlight as president. He dominated much of the day’s news coverage in a way he rarely has recently.

It was only the fourth press conference since the beginning of 2008 for the president, who has kept a particularly low profile in recent weeks, as Mr. Obama has assumed national leadership on the economy.

While the early Monday morning notice of the event set off the usual scurrying of reporters to get downtown, there was not the normal packed house. The back two rows of the 49-seat James S. Brady Press Briefing Room were almost empty moments before the press conference began.

Mr. Bush thanked members of the press.

“We’ve been through a lot together,” he said. “Just seemed like yesterday that I was on the campaign trail and you were analyzing my speeches and my policies.”

“Through it all … I have respected you. Sometimes didn’t like the stories that you wrote or reported on. Sometimes you misunderestimated me. But always the relationship I have felt has been professional. And I appreciate it.”

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