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Inside Politics

Bush: America better off with his leadership

'The world's safer'

President and Mrs. Bush appear on CNN's "Larry King Live" Thursday evening.
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LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- President Bush said Thursday that America is "absolutely" better off today than it was four years ago -- on both the national security and domestic fronts.

"The world's safer. ... Libya's no longer a threat. Pakistan is an ally in the war on terror," Bush said in an exclusive interview on CNN's "Larry King Live."

"There are 50 million people that once lived in tyranny now living in societies which are heading toward democracies," he said.

Bush also promoted improvements at home.

"The economy is growing. We've overcome a recession and corporate scandals, a stock market decline and an attack," he said. "And yet we've recovered and our economy is getting better. The education system is getting better because of the No Child Left Behind Act. The Medicare law has been strengthened so seniors will have prescription drug coverage starting in 2006."

The president also said he would still choose to go to war in Iraq if he had it to do all over again -- even knowing everything he now knows about the absence of stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.

"I will argue that Saddam Hussein out of power has made the world a better place and a safer place," he said. "We thought we'd find stockpiles. The whole world thought we'd find stockpiles. ... But what we do know is Saddam Hussein had the capability of making weapons of mass destruction, and after September 11th, a risk we could not take was that he would share that capability with our enemies."

Bush, who was joined for the interview by his wife, Laura, also took issue with a proposal by Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry to set a six-month time frame to begin reducing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq.

"That says to the enemy, 'Wait for six months and one day,' or it says to the Iraqis, 'The Americans aren't serious,'" Bush said. "The timetable is this -- not one day more than is necessary, and the commanders on the ground will let us know when."

Bush, who has championed a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, also made some of his most explicit comments to date on whether he believes states should be able to provide legal recognition to gay and lesbian couples with civil unions that stop short of marriage.

"That's up to states," Bush said. "If they want to provide legal protections for gays, that's great. That's fine. But I do not want to change the definition of marriage. I don't think our country should."

With just 81 days to go before Americans decide if he should get a second term, Bush told King he was confident of winning re-election, despite polls showing the race is razor close.

"I believe the American people know my style of leadership, they know what to expect, and they understand that the commander-in-chief must not waver in this era -- that we must continue to stay on the offense," he said. "But they're also beginning to understand my deep desire to spread liberty around the world as a way to help secure our country in the long run. I think we have an obligation to lead."

Bush also said that he had not seen ads from a group called Swift Boat Veterans for the Truth, questioning Kerry's military service in Vietnam. Asked whether he condemned the ads, the president renewed his call for pulling all of the independent television ads, on both sides, off the air.

"They've said some bad things about me. I guess they're saying bad things about him. And what I think we ought to do is not have them on the air," he said.

Bush said he believes Kerry's tours of duty in Vietnam were "honorable service" -- but he also suggested his military record was not terribly relevant to the core choice voters need to make in November.

"Senator Kerry is justifiably proud of his record in Vietnam and should be. It's noble service," Bush said. "The question is who can best lead the country in a time of war. That's really what the debate ought to be about. And I think it's me, because I understand the stakes."

The president also said that during his first term, he was most disappointed by the "bitterness inside Washington." But he also said he does not spend much time thinking about personal attacks against him.

"I've got too much on my mind to worry about me," he said. "I've got too much to do and too much to worry about."

Bush also said he thinks the characterization of the American electorate as angry, uncivil and bitterly polarized is an overstatement, based on what he has seen traveling the country.

"I think there may be handfuls of people that are very emotional, but I think by far the vast majority of Americans are wanting to know whether they're going to be able to work and whether or not the government's doing its job of protecting the country," he said. "I don't have a sense there's a lot of anger."

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