ABC News’ Michael Falcone reports:
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour unleashed some of his sharpest criticism to date of President Obama’s fiscal policies in Chicago on Monday, accusing the White House of pursuing policies that “show little understanding of how our economy actually works.”
“Think about it,” Barbour said in a speech to the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, “is there anybody in the current Administration who ever signed the front side of a paycheck?”
Barbour, who looks increasingly likely to jump into the 2012 presidential race, used the speech to kick-off a two-day campaign-style swing through Illinois and Iowa.
He told the audience that President Obama has exhibited a “failure of leadership” and that upon taking office his administration abandoned pro-growth policies in favor or “unlimited faith in limitless government.”
And the Mississippi Republican, whose previous experience as a lobbyist, Reagan administration political operative and chairman of the Republican National Committee, allowed him -- as he put it on Monday -- to see “the sausage factory” of Washington “up close,” also accused Obama of being “AWOL on the subject of entitlements.”
“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 has been underway over three decades,” Barbour told the business group.
How to reform Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid -- programs that make up the largest chunk of the federal budget -- has been a topic of intense debate in Washington as Republicans and Democrats wrangle over spending levels and the deficit.
Barbour asserted that he did not “shy away from entitlement reform” as governor but offered few specifics in his speech about how extensively he tackled the issue in Mississippi or about his ideas for doing so on the national level.
He praised fellow Republican governors like Scott Walker in Wisconsin for waging “a courageous and necessary fight to rein in excessive government spending,” while turning up the volume on his calls for the U.S. to increase oil production as the average price of gas inches toward $4 a gallon.
“Let me say flatly: $4 gasoline is bad for our economy, bad for small and large businesses and bad for American families,” Barbour said.
After his Chicago speech, the Mississippi governor was headed to Iowa for meetings with political leaders and voters. On Tuesday he will deliver a speech at an Iowa GOP fundraiser in Scott County -- an event that is expected to draw a business-minded crowd. Iowa Republican sources believe that with these initial visits, Barbour has an opportunity to make real inroads in the crucial early state.
And if his remarks on Monday -- delivered on President Obama’s home turf -- were any indication, he’s already testing potential campaign themes.
“The professional economists tell us the recession is over,” Barbour said. “That’s hard to see on Main Street, and I don’t hear anybody celebrating. In the Heartland, this doesn’t feel much like a recovery.”