By Dan Frosch

DALLAS -- Former President George W. Bush touted the benefits of the North American Free Trade Agreement in a speech on Tuesday, saying the trade pact had created millions of jobs and helped bolster economies in both the U.S. and Mexico.

President-elect Donald Trump has said he plans on renegotiating Nafta and exiting the agreement altogether if improved terms for the U.S. aren't reached.

In remarks delivered at Mr. Bush's Presidential Center on the campus of Southern Methodist University, the former president said trade was vital to keeping the U.S. economy competitive and ensuring that workers' wages kept rising.

"Trade shows a confidence in our workers and our business people, because trade really means we're willing to compete,"he said in his speech during a conference held here by the North American Strategy for Competitiveness, a trade group that has been supportive of Nafta.

Mr. Trump has railed repeatedly against Nafta, successfully tapping into frustration among voters in Rust Belt states like Michigan and Pennsylvania who felt too many factory jobs had been shipped overseas because of trade deals.

Mr. Bush didn't comment directly on Mr. Trump's positions or even mention him by name, but he said he recognized that people were "sick and tired of the status quo" and that helped drive this year's election.

"I understand anger. And some people might have been angry when I was president. But anger shouldn't drive policy," he said. "What needs to drive policy is what's best for the people who are angry, and how does that benefit people in our country and countries in the neighborhood."

Mr. Bush noted in his speech that the U.S. economy couldn'tremain stagnant, saying that workers in dying industries could be successfully retrained at better paying jobs.

Defending Nafta, he said the agreement had transformed the economies on both sides of the Texas border, helping to create a thriving middle class where impoverished conditions once prevailed.

"We're at an interesting moment about do we build on the strengths or not," he said. "Our group here believes we ought to build on the strengths."

Mr. Bush and his father, former President George H.W. Bush, never embraced Mr. Trump's candidacy, despite being fellow Republicans.

Before Election Day, a spokesman for the former president said that Mr. Bush and his wife, Laura, hadn't voted for either Mr. Trump or Hillary Clinton, but wouldn't reveal if the couple voted for a third-party candidate or wrote in someone else.

Following the election, both Bushes called Mr. Trump to congratulate him.

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

November 15, 2016 15:50 ET (20:50 GMT)

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