Former President George W. Bush said Thursday that America must resist the “temptation” to allow the government to take over the private sector, taking a subtle shot at his Democratic successor by warning that too much state intervention and protectionism will squelch the economic recovery.
As the Obama administration has made far-reaching moves into the auto, real estate, health care and financial sectors to fight the economic recession, Mr. Bush, without mentioning the president by name, said, “The role of government is not to create wealth but to create the conditions that allow entrepreneurs and innovators to thrive.
“As the world recovers, we will face a temptation to replace the risk-and-reward model of the private sector with the blunt instruments of government spending and control. History shows that the greater threat to prosperity is not too little government involvement, but too much,” said Mr. Bush, who has remained out of the limelight since leaving office and rarely criticizes his successor.
Mr. Bush has addressed private groups since leaving the White House in January, but Thursday’s speech, delivered at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, was his first major public policy address since leaving office.
Obama administration officials have defended many of their economic moves as emergency measures to deal with the economy they inherited from Mr. Bush. They note that some of the most intrusive policies — including the $700 billion Wall Street bailout — were instituted under Mr. Bush’s watch.
At SMU, the future home to the George W. Bush Presidential Center, the former president sought to explain his decision to have the government intervene at the peak of the financial crisis last fall, a decision he called “one of the most difficult of my presidency.”
“I went against my free-market instincts and approved a temporary government intervention to unfreeze credit and prevent a global financial catastrophe,” he said.
Although many economists credit that early action with halting the economic free fall, Mr. Bush said the only long-term path to prosperity is to free up the private sector and to push for open foreign markets to U.S. goods.
“Trade has been one of the world’s most powerful engines of economic growth and one of the most effective ways to lift people out of poverty. Yet a 60-year movement toward trade liberalization is under threat from creeping protectionism and isolationism,” Mr. Bush said.
In one of his first major decisions on trade policy, Mr. Obama in September imposed a tariff on tires from China, making good on a campaign promise to the United Steelworkers union to “crack down” on imports that hurt American workers.
In his speech — which set out his goals for a new policy institute focused on economic growth, education, human freedom and global health — Mr. Bush said he entered politics because “because I saw society drifting away from the values at the heart of the American dream.”
“I pledged to govern based on principles that empower people to improve their lives and strengthen our nation. I believe that free markets open the path to opportunity, that a successful society requires personal responsibility, that freedom is universal and transformative, and that every human life has dignity and value.”
The core of his new presidential complex — scheduled to open in 2013 — will be the George W. Bush Institute. The nonpartisan think tank will house scholars from around the world and advance Mr. Bush’s most dearly held effort as president: promoting human freedom.
“As I said in my second inaugural address, extending the reach of freedom ‘is the urgent requirement of our nation’s security, and the calling of our time,’ ” he told about 1,500 students, faculty, friends, community leaders and supporters.
He plans to continue to support dissidents and reformers around the world, including those from many of the hostile nations with which Mr. Obama has pledged to engage in dialogue.