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.
“From labor camps in North Korea, to political prisons in Cuba and Burma, university halls in Iran, coffeehouses in Venezuela, and other places, dissidents and reformers are seeking strength and support. When America stands for liberty, they take heart. When we do not, the dictators tighten their grip,” Mr. Bush said.
Several fellows have been recruited for the institute, including the first fellow in “human freedom” — Oscar Morales Guevara. Mr. Guevara used Facebook to launch a movement called “One million voices against the FARC,” the brutal leftist separatist movement in Colombia. A month later, more than 12 million people in 40 countries rallied against the network.
Former first lady Laura Bush will play a role as well, overseeing women’s initiatives and education — her signature issue during her tenure in the White House. With Sandy Kress, former chairman of the Dallas County Democratic Party, as the issue’s steward, the institute will seek to evaluate how best “to recruit, prepare, evaluate and reward” principals and administrators.
The presidential complex — at more than 200,000 square feet, second in size only to former President Ronald Reagan’s library in Simi Valley, Calif. — will include an archives and museum. The archives will hold “4 million photos; thousands of boxes of documents; and hundreds of millions of e-mails — not one of which was sent by me,” he said to laughter.
But the policy institute will be forward-looking.
“It’s an interesting way to make a presidential library, which is usually about what happened in the past, a vehicle to continue to talk about how to change the future,” said Mark Langdale, president of the George W. Bush Presidential Center.
Also at the museum will be a replica of his Oval Office, a “Texas rose garden,” Mr. Bush said, and “the bullhorn I used in my first visit to ground zero” at the World Trade Center three days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Mr. Bush, who is writing his memoirs, seemed to enjoy the spotlight and, as a self-confessed C student, his return to college.
“It’s pretty exciting for a 63-year-old to be back on the college scene. I enjoy popping in on a class from time to time. Come to think of it, that was my strategy as a student,” he said to laughter.
His post-presidency also has provided some interesting opportunities, he said, including “a job offer to be a greeter at Elliott’s Hardware.”