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Still, Mr. Bush was optimistic, pressing, as he did as president, free trade, open markets and the free enterprise system. “We’ll come out of this better than before,” he said to more applause.

But he was less than convinced about Mr. Obama’s move to overhaul the health care system.

“There are a lot of ways to remedy the situation without nationalizing health care,” Mr. Bush said. “I worry about encouraging the government to replace the private sector when it comes to providing insurance for health care.”

Asked by the evening emcee at the 104th annual Manufacturer and Business Association meeting if he finds the new president’s policies “socialist,” Mr. Bush started — then stopped.

“I hear a lot of those words, but it depends on —” he said, breaking off. He later offered a more diplomatic assessment: “We’ll see.”

Wednesday’s speech to hundreds of high-paying association members — “premium” tables at the city’s convention center went for $1,500 — was just the second post-presidency speech by Mr. Bush on U.S. soil (his two major speeches were both in Canada).

He was loose and relaxed, his nose a bright red from nearly a week in Kennebunkport, Maine, where he joined his family in celebration of his father’s 85th birthday. Mr. Bush told some of his new set stories: How just a month after leaving office he was picking up his dog Barney’s poop off a manicured lawn in his Dallas neighborhood; how he’s experienced his first red light in 14 years (he served six years as Texas governor before being elected president).

His Secret Service detail, however, was not relaxed: This was the first event in which audience members did not have to pass through metal detectors. Outside, a tiny group of protesters and supporters — about 10 people on each side — faced off on opposite curbs. One man held a sign that said, “President Bush, thank you for saving all the babies.” On the other side: “Arrest Bush.”

But the former president got a big cheer when he walked out on stage — even bigger than Joe Paterno, the legendary Penn State coach who was also on hand for the event. The former president noted that America has a funny political system: “You’re it, then you’re not it — instantly.”

He lamented the politics of personal destruction that he said is rampant in Washington, noting, though, that it has always been thus. Recalling how a treasury secretary and a vice president once fought a duel, he joked: “At least when my vice president shot somebody, it was an accident.”

During a question-and-answer session, Mr. Bush recounted tough decisions he made in office. Still steely, the former president said he left Washington with the same moral resolve. “When I look in the mirror, I say, ‘He did not sell his soul for short-term politics.’”

Asked about the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when he first learned of the terrorist attacks while in a classroom full of children in Florida, Mr. Bush said he simply found an inner resolve.

“I realized that we were in crisis, and the first thing I do in any crisis … is calm. If you’re president, and all of a sudden the whole world is watching you, and you get up and do something precipitously, frighten children, storm out, that kind of movement will cascade through a society,” he said.

In answer to a question about what he learned as president, Mr. Bush smiled broadly. “There’s so much stuff coming at you,” he said to laughter. But turning serious, he said, perhaps to his successor: “You don’t know what’s going to come when you’re president. You just have to be ready for it.”