WASHINGTON – President George W. Bush expressed remorse that the global financial crisis has cost jobs and harmed retirement accounts and said he'll back more government intervention if needed to ease the recession.
"I'm sorry it's happening, of course," Bush said in a wide-ranging interview with ABC's "World News," which was airing Monday. "Obviously I don't like the idea of people losing jobs, or being worried about their 401(k)s. On the other hand, the American people got to know that we will safeguard the system. I mean, we're in. And if we need to be in more, we will."
The U.S. economy fell into a recession in December 2007, the National Bureau of Economic Research reported on Monday. Many economists believe the current downturn will last until the middle of 2009 and will be the most severe slump since the 1981-82 recession.
On the war in Iraq, Bush said the biggest regret of his presidency was the "intelligence failure" regarding the extent of the Saddam Hussein threat to the United States. With the support of Congress, Bush ordered the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 — a decision largely justified on grounds — later proved false — that Saddam was building weapons of mass destruction.
Asked if he would have ordered the U.S.-led invasion if intelligence reports had accurately indicated that Saddam did not have the weapons, Bush replied: "You know, that's an interesting question. That is a do-over that I can't do. It's hard for me to speculate."
During a discussion about what Americans should know about what it is like to be president, Bush was asked what he was most unprepared for going into the office.
"I think I was unprepared for war," he said. "In other words, I didn't campaign and say, `Please vote for me, I'll be able to handle an attack.' In other words, I didn't anticipate war. Presidents — one of the things about the modern presidency is that the unexpected will happen."
On the presidential election, Bush called Barack Obama's victory a "repudiation of Republicans."
"I'm sure some people voted for Barack Obama because of me," said Bush, who leaves office with low approval ratings. "I think most people voted for Barack Obama because they decided they wanted him to be in their living room for the next four years explaining policy. In other words, they made a conscious choice to put him in as president."
As he leaves office, Bush said he felt responsible for the economic downturn because it's occurring on his watch, but he added: "I think when the history of this period is written, people will realize a lot of the decisions that were made on Wall Street took place over a decade or so" before he became president.
He said he would like to see "instant liquidity" in the markets given the extent of the financial rescue plan, yet he understands that fear has paralyzed the markets.
"It is hard for the average citizen to understand how frozen the system became and how over-leveraged the system became," Bush said. "And so what we're watching is the de-leveraging of our financial markets, which is obviously affecting the growth of the economy."
Last week, the Bush administration and the Federal Reserve pledged $800 billion to break through blockades on credit cards, auto loans, mortgages and other borrowing. The latest moves raised U.S. commitments to contain the financial crisis to nearly $7 trillion — though no one thinks the government will actually spend that much.
The figures include loans that are expected to be repaid, loan authorities to back mortgages, purchases of stock in banks, guarantees to support loans among banks and pledges backing other transactions.
"This economy will recover," Bush said in the interview conducted last Wednesday at the Camp David, Md., presidential retreat. "And when it recovers, many of the assets backed by the government now will be redeemed, and we will — could conceivably — make money off of some of the holdings."
Later in the interview, he said: "I can't guarantee that we'll get all our money back, but it's conceivable we could."