ERIE, Pa.| Former President George W. Bush fired a salvo at President Obama on Wednesday, asserting his administration’s interrogation policies were within the law, declaring the private sector — not government — will fix the economy and rejecting the nationalization of health care.
“I know it’s going to be the private sector that leads this country out of the current economic times we’re in,” the former president said to applause from members of a local business group. “You can spend your money better than the government can spend your money.”
Repeatedly in his hourlong speech and question-and-answer session, Mr. Bush said he would not directly criticize the new president, who has moved to take over financial institutions and several large corporations. Several times, however, he took direct aim at Obama policies as he defended his own during eight years in office.
“Government does not create wealth. The major role for the government is to create an environment where people take risks to expand the job rate in the United States,” he said to huge cheers.
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Mr. Bush weighed in on some of the most pressing issues of the day: the election in Iran, the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba, and his administration’s interrogation policies of terrorists held there and elsewhere. The former president has not commented on Mr. Obama’s decision to ban “enhanced interrogation techniques” such as waterboarding, which the current president has called “off course” and “based on fear.”
“The way I decided to address the problem was twofold: One, use every technique and tool within the law to bring terrorists to justice before they strike again,” he said, adding that the country needs to stay on offense, not defense.
On Guantanamo, which while in office Mr. Bush said he wanted to close, the former president was diplomatic.
“I told you I’m not going to criticize my successor,” he said. “I’ll just tell you that there are people at Gitmo that will kill American people at a drop of a hat and I don’t believe that — persuasion isn’t going to work. Therapy isn’t going to cause terrorists to change their mind.”
The Obama administration has started to clear out some of the more than 200 detainees at the facility.
Repeating a mantra from his presidency, he called the current war against terrorism an “ideological conflict,” asserting that in the long term, the United States needs to press freedom and democracy in corners across the world.
Mr. Bush did not directly address Mr. Obama’s response to the election in Iran, which some critics have called tepid, but he did make clear that the outcome is very much in dispute. For a fifth straight day, as the Obama administration walks a tightrope by issuing little criticism, protesters gathered in Tehran to demand a new election.
“Clearly, there’s a level of frustration on the Iranian streets,” Mr. Bush said. “It looks like it’s not a very fair election.”
Mr. Bush returned again and again to the economy, and sought to defend his own actions after the financial meltdown in the waning days of his second term — Mr. Obama repeatedly has said he inherited that mess.
“I am told, ‘If you do not move strongly, Mr. President, you will be a president overseeing a depression that will ultimately be greater than the Great Depression,’” Mr. Bush said. “I firmly believe it was necessary to put money in our banks to make sure our financial system did not collapse. … I did not want there to be bread lines, to be a great depression.”
He said his administration sought to address the “housing bubble” before the system broke down. “We tried to reform” mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, “but couldn’t get it through the vested interests on Capitol Hill.”
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.”