Former President George W. Bush said Tuesday that he is optimistic the United States can achieve 4 percent gross domestic product growth.
"Those who think America's days of economic greatness are over are wrong in my judgment. Obviously we have to be somewhat optimistic to aim for an aspirational target of 4 percent," Bush said in one of his first speeches on the economy since leaving office.
His speech opening the two-day conference on economic growth kicked off their initiative to find ways for the economy to achieve 4 percent GDP growth.
James K. Glassman, executive director of the institute, said that since the 1950s, the U.S. economy has grown at an average of about 3.5 percent a year but that current projections are lower.
"Current projections by the Congressional Budget Office and many economists now call for a quick blip upward perhaps after the recession but long term sustainable GDP growth for the United States in the neighborhood of just 2.5 or 2 or even less," he said.
About 240 people, including former members of the Bush administration, business leaders and economics experts gathered on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where the George W. Bush Presidential Center is being built. The center, which will house the Bush library and the institute, is expected to be completed in 2013.
Bush also spoke about his decision while in office to offer a government bailout to Wall Street, which he said was one of the toughest he made.
"I can't prove that we were going to have an economic disaster. I'm just telling you we didn't have one," he said.
Bush said that what now must be looked at is what caused the need for a bailout.
"Will we unwind government involvement as quickly as possible _ which we at the Bush center think ought to happen. And will we focus on growth and not regulation, which is what this conference is really about," Bush said.
David Wyss, chief economist at Standard & Poor's in New York, said a slowing labor force will challenge efforts to increase GDP growth.
He said much of what would achieve faster growth, including opening America's doors to more immigrants, would require action by the government.
Glassman said the increase can't be "achieved overnight," but what's most important is to come up with ideas, especially ones that don't require Congress to pass laws.
Richard Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas who moderated one of the conferences panels, said it's possible to grow at or near 4, adding that Texas is at 3.77 percent.
Other conference participants included Meg Whitman, the former CEO of online auctioneer eBay Inc. and Republican candidate for California governor. Whitman lost to Democrat Jerry Brown in the fall.
"It will not be easy, but we can do this. We can restore America's growth," Whitman said.
Bush campaigned in 2000 on providing tax cuts as a way to boost the economy, which was sliding into a recession. He said the country could afford them because of projections that the budget, which was in surplus, was projected to have surpluses of $5.6 trillion over the next decade.
Bush won congressional approval of the tax cuts, but the 2001 recession, spending to fight a global war on terrorism and the tax cuts wiped out the surpluses.
Bush's eight years in office ended with another recession that began in December 2007.
When Obama took office he was confronted with a recession and the financial crisis. He pushed through a $787 billion stimulus program in February 2009 but that program pushed deficits higher.
As the conference started, about half a dozen people stood outside the entrance to SMU with signs, including one that read: "I (heart) the war economy" and another reading, "Taxes are not for everyone."
Associated Press Economics Writer Martin Crutsinger contributed to this report.
George W. Bush President Center, http://www.georgewbushcenter.com