WASHINGTON — Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, not one to be a wallflower at any gathering, stood out at the White House on Monday as many of the nation’s governors, in Washington for their winter meeting, met with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.
Sure enough, the first governor to get the nod from the president during questions and answers was Barbour.
"The president called on me first," Barbour said in an interview with the Sun Herald, describing the portion of the session closed to reporters. The choice, somewhat surprising given Barbour’s political profile as chairman of the Republican Governors' Association and potential 2012 GOP presidential candidate, set well with Barbour, a high-profile former Washington operative.
Thanking Obama for the administration's post-Katrina support from HUD, DHS and DOT — including last week's $20 million for the Port of Gulfport — Barbour wasted no time in giving Obama some political advice: Forget health care and focus on jobs.
"I told the president where I come from the first, second, third, fourth and fifth priority are jobs, jobs, jobs," he said.
Of course, no sooner had the governors left the session than they were handed the Obama administration's new health-care plan — the focus of a bipartisan White House summit Thursday.
"I haven't had a chance to read it," said Barbour, who added that governors had talked about some issues on which members from both parties could agree, such as state-sponsored health exchanges.
He continues to hammer the theme of unfunded mandates, warning any federal plan to expand Medicaid should be paid for by the federal government, not the state governments.
The Magnolia State leader said he had been told that the new administration bill delayed the unfunded mandates by a year from the Senate and House health care bills. "I wouldn't call that relief," he said.
Barbour said he also told the president that small businesses need loans, tougher to get in the tight financial climate. "We don't want health premiums to go up; that hurts small business. Small business is a jobs creator — half the people in the U.S. work for small business."
Barbour, as always, is very political and is focused on the 37 gubernatorial elections he wants his party to win in November — and he thinks "more than 30" are competitive.
Asked about the seemingly strong GOP prospects, Barbour said cautiously, "It's a Republican year, today, in February."
"The political environment is better today than it was in February 1994," he said. The 1994 elections were a watershed year for the GOP, which won the House, the Senate and 10 governorships.
"A month is a light-year in politics," he said.
Republicans won two governorships in November — Virginia and New Jersey — and the GOP took home a victory in the Massachusetts' special election in January.
"There's a lot of optimism," said Barbour, who tells candidate to distinguish between optimism and confidence. "Confidence is what you can have after the election."
As for his own White House prospects, Barbour said, "I get asked about it all the time.
"I'm chairman of RGA through November — I've got a full-time political job. I've also got a full-time job as governor."
But then comes the Sarah Palin moment: "I don't have any plans to run for president. I don't totally rule it out." Palin, the 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee, has also said she would not rule out a presidential run.
A decision, Barbour said, will come shortly after the November elections.
In the meantime, Barbour has a full travel schedule, which happens to include visits to Iowa and New Hampshire, where, he is quick to say, there are important governors' races.