Reporting from Chicago — Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a prospective GOP presidential candidate, used a speech to Chicago business executives Monday to excoriate President Obama's economic and energy policies, but stopped short of criticizing the Democratic incumbent's cautious approach to Libya.
Speaking to the political action committee of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, Barbour contended that the American public has told the White House that "bigger government means a smaller economy." Barbour said control of federal spending cannot be possible without changes in major entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
Barbour, who was moving on from Chicago to events later Monday and Tuesday in Iowa, the nation's first presidential caucus state, argued that Obama, a former Illinois senator, "has been AWOL" on the subject of entitlements, which represent more than half the federal budget.
"Despite his failure of leadership, the structural changes needed to put entitlement programs on a sustainable path must be the centerpiece of the next stage of government reform that’s been underway for over 30 years," Barbour said. The former political director in the Reagan White House and a former top lobbyist, Barbour cited the 1980s as a period of reforming the tax code and the 1990s as a Clinton administration acceptance of a GOP push to "emphasize work over dependency."
"And in our time, the challenge will be realigning entitlements so beneficiaries are protected without imposing a crushing debt on future generations," Barbour said. "It can be done. But it must be led by a president who is actually committed to change."
Barbour used a teleprompter during his half-hour speech. He cited the hometown president’s frequent use of the device and said, "When in Rome ..."
He also hailed the controversial actions of Republican governors in Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio, saying they were waging a "courageous and necessary fight to rein in excessive government spending” by reforming “unsustainable entitlement in public-sector union benefits." Like Republicans in the U.S. House, they have started "chiseling away at the mountain of debt by restoring government to its proper and limited role in our society."
Barbour accused Obama of adopting an energy policy more reminiscent of "an environmental policy" that does little to advance domestic oil production and said the president has never said $4-a-gallon gasoline was "unacceptable." But he stopped short of criticizing Obama over what some critics have said is too much caution in the turmoil in Libya.
"I think we need to be cautious about being quick on the trigger," Barbour said.
"The idea of nation-building, in my opinion, is something we need to be very, very, very careful about," Barbour said. "I don't think it's our mission to make Libya look like Luxembourg. ... At the end of the day, we might have some role in Libya but it should not be to send American troops in there and knock heads and make Libya what we would like Libya to look like. Because it, no offense, is not ever going to look like what we'd like it."
Barbour said he recognized that presidents get asked the "hard" questions and have to make tough decisions. But when an audience member asked him if he was ready yet to run for president, the governor quickly replied, "No. That's an easy one."