By Nick Carey
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Haley Barbour, a conservative Republican weighing a 2012 White House run, condemned President Barack Obama on Monday for failed leadership and big-spending policies that he said were stifling economic recovery.
On a visit to Obama's hometown of Chicago, the two-term Mississippi governor and former Republican Party chairman said out-of-control spending and exploding deficits under Obama had smothered U.S. job and economic growth.
"It's not a failure of business or a failure of free enterprise," Barbour told the business leaders in the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce crowd.
"For more than two years, this administration and its Congress have pursued policy after policy that create economic uncertainty or directly hurt the economy," he said.
Barbour is one of a large field of Republicans considering a challenge to Obama for the White House in 2012, although no major candidates have formally entered the race yet.
The folksy Southerner, who has strong political and fund raising contacts from his time as Republican National Committee chairman, could be a formidable contender in the race to deny Obama a second term. He is expected to decide by late April.
Barbour cited lackluster U.S. job growth and the downward revision of fourth quarter 2010 U.S. Gross Domestic Product growth as evidence that "in the heartland, this doesn't feel much like a recovery."
"This administration seems convinced massive government spending is the path to economic growth and job creation," Barbour said, adding that the result had been job losses and growing deficits.
"It's time we made economic growth, not government growth, our top domestic priority," Barbour said.
Obama is expected to formally launch his re-election bid in the next few months. He faces a potentially difficult race, with stubbornly high unemployment and rising gas prices keeping his approval ratings hovering around 50 percent.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll released last week showed the percentage of Americans who believe the country is on the wrong track rose 7 percentage points to 64 percent from February.
'ZEAL OF A CONVERT'
Barbour poked fun at Obama's recent efforts to woo business leaders, saying he had taken to courting them with "the zeal of a convert who just heard the Gospel -- now he's meeting with CEOs. But despite all the talk there's no change in policy ... they seem to have no trust in business," he said.
Barbour, who served as political director for Republican President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and was chairman of the RNC from 1993 to 1997, won praise for his leadership in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005.
Barbour, who was elected governor in 2004, boasted that under his leadership the state dug out of a $720 million budget hole without raising taxes, curbed medical liability lawsuits by 90 percent, and reduced fraud and errors in the Medicaid insurance program for the poor.
He chided Obama for a "failure of leadership" for not taking on the structural changes need to contain escalating costs of programs such as the Medicare health program for seniors and the Social Security retirement program.
Barbour listed four pillars for economic growth: lower income taxes, lower capital gains taxes, more free trade agreements, and stable monetary policy.
Among his goals, he said, would be changes to the tax code to bring home $1 trillion that American companies have locked overseas, a reduction in corporate tax rates, expanded exploration for U.S. oil and natural gas, and pursuing investment from India and China.
(Writing by Andrew Stern; editing by John Whitesides)