By Karen Tumulty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 15, 2011; 2:11 AM
CHICAGO - Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R), taking another step toward an expected run for the 2012 presidential nomination, road-tested his economic message on Monday in a speech in which he blamed President Obama's economic policies for failing to revive the economy and posing "an even greater threat to our economic future."
Addressing the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce in Obama's home town, Barbour mocked the president's efforts to reach out to businesses.
"The recent election seems to have given the president the zeal of a convert who just heard the Gospel. Now he's meeting with CEOs. Extending the Bush tax cuts. Even speaking at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce," Barbour said. "Talking to business leaders about the economy. Now that's 'change' even I can believe in."
But Barbour added: "Despite all the talk, there's no change in policy. And the policies embraced by this White House show little understanding of how our economy actually works."
He acknowledged that the Obama presidency had been greeted by "the worst economic conditions in decades," but he said that the administration had made it worse, increasing uncertainty by pursuing "explosive spending, skyrocketing deficits, gargantuan debt, calls for record tax increases, government-run health care, out-of-control regulations and anti-growth energy policy."
Barbour sketched out his own economic agenda, a series of four business-friendly proposals that are well within standard GOP dogma: boosting investment through corporate tax cuts and a reduction in lawsuits; expanding trade and foreign investment in the United States; improving education and expanding immigration policies to attract "the world's most talented engineers, computer scientists, chemists, and inventors"; and increasing domestic energy production through more drilling.
Barbour's greatest strength as a national candidate might be the extraordinary political network that he built as a longtime Washington insider - as an aide in the Reagan White House, a lobbyist and chairman of the Republican National Committee. But in the tea party era, that background might also be a liability - something that Barbour addressed in the speech.
"I spent much of my professional life as a political strategist and as a lobbyist in Washington. I ran the political office of the White House for Ronald Reagan. I am very proud of the work I did. I understood Congress and the administration. I saw the sausage factory up close. I started a business, which was deemed very successful," he said. "But when I took the oath of office as governor, I got a new perspective on government and how it affects real people."
It was evident that Barbour has also moved to address another potential stumbling block to his candidacy - a series of recent comments that have been portrayed as racially insensitive.
Seated at the front of the ballroom for Barbour's speech was a table of African American community leaders. Among them was Andrea Zopp, president of the Chicago Urban League, who had initially planned to object to Barbour's appearance here, because she had been offended by an interview last year in which the Mississippi governor had seemed to defend the South's notorious segregationist Citizens Councils.
Zopp said, however, that she decided not to protest the speech after Barbour's aides and the Chamber of Commerce put her in touch with a number of African American business leaders in Barbour's home state.
They praised the governor for the measures that he had put forward to encourage minority business development, she said.
"Actions speak louder than words, and the minority business organizations that have worked with him are very positive," Zopp said. "I'm here to hear what he has to say."
As he concluded his speech, Barbour cited another president from Illinois - one who is a hero to civil rights leaders. But he gave Abraham Lincoln's legacy a pro-business spin.
"Lincoln understood that entrepreneurial capitalism is the economic equivalent of political freedom," the governor said. "In this 150th anniversary of his inauguration, we should rediscover the timeless wisdom of Abraham Lincoln."