"We never made the cause -- I was never able to make the case -- that what we did was for the American people, to prevent economic disaster," he said in an appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press." "It wasn't for the bankers."
Meanwhile, Paulson said, the United States is likely to have another financial crisis in the future.
"That's the history of mankind; as long as there are markets, there will be crises. Most of them have been manageable," he said.
Right now, he said, it's time to "clean up our messes" by reforming mortgage lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The federal government took control of the lenders as part of the 2008 bailout, and now Congress is debating whether to reduce taxpayer support for them or sell them.