NEW YORK — President George W. Bush fervently defended U.S.-style free enterprise Thursday as the cure for the world's financial chaos, not the cause. He warned foreign leaders ahead of a weekend summit not to crush global growth with restrictive new rules.
"We must recognize that government intervention is not a cure-all," Bush said from Wall Street, setting his own tone for the two-day meeting that begins Friday in Washington seeking solutions to the economic crisis that has spread around the world.
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"Our aim should not be more government," he told the business executives. "It should be smarter government."
The president acknowledged that governments share the blame for the severe economic troubles that have hit banks, homes and whole countries.
He spelled out his prescription, which includes tougher accounting rules and more modern international financial institutions. But he stopped short of the tighter oversight and regulation that European leaders want. All his ideas came with a warning: Don't disturb capitalism.
"In the wake of the financial crisis, voices from the left and right are equating the free enterprise system with greed, exploitation and failure," Bush said.
"It is true that this crisis included failures, by leaders and borrowers, by financial firms, by governments and independent regulators," Bush said. "But the crisis was not a failure of the free market system. And the answer is not to try to reinvent that system."
That warning about the dangers of too much government intervention came not long after he championed the biggest bailout in U.S. history: a $700 billion taxpayer-funded plan to rescue the financial industry. His government has also signed off on costly rescues for housing, insurance and other financial institutions.
The U.S. wields enormous clout in any global response to the economic crisis, and Bush is host for the weekend gathering, bringing together heads of state from the world's biggest economies as well as emerging nations. It is intended to be the first in a series.
But in about two months, Democrat Barack Obama will take over as president. Though the president-elect does not plan to attend this summit, he has authorized former Iowa Rep. Jim Leach and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to represent him.
The world leaders come to Washington with their own ideas for change. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and others are advocating a broader overhaul of financial regulations than Bush wants. The Europeans also want a pledge for concrete changes in just 100 days.
The stated goal for this weekend is to examine the causes of the crisis and begin mapping out principles for a response.
But Britain's Brown, on his way to the summit, declared, "There is a need for urgency."
It was fitting that Bush's argument against regulatory overreach was delivered not in Washington but on Wall Street. His speech venue was venerable Federal Hall, home to the first Congress and within shouting distance of the New York Stock Exchange.
There was freshly sobering news on the U.S. economy: The number of newly laid-off people seeking unemployment benefits jumped to a level not seen since just after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Still the Dow Jones industrial average surged 553 points by the end of the trading day.
On Thursday, Bush defended his administration against charges from some leaders that insufficient oversight and regulation in the U.S. contributed to — even caused — the mess by failing to raise alarms. Obama is among those who say no one was minding the people's business as the housing market plunged, credit markets ground to a halt and the broader financial system went into distress.
White House aides play down Bush's differences with other nations, saying the leaders have much in common, as evidenced by the gathering itself.
Besides the United States, the countries represented at the White House dinner Friday and meetings on Saturday will be Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Britain, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea and Turkey. Those countries and the European Union make up the so-called G-20.
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said before he left for Washington that he would raise with fellow leaders his view that a system in which executives of financial firms are rewarded for maximizing risk "cannot be sustained." He said, "That's just dumb, it's wrong and it's bad."