From msnbc.com's Carrie Dann and NBC's Mark Murray
In remarks heavily focused on the economy, foreign policy, and American exceptionalism Friday, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney squarely challenged the competence and the authenticity of the man he’d like to replace in the White House.
The speech to the CPAC conservative conference -- the same group to whom he conceded the presidential primary race three years ago -- was primarily an assault on what he described as President Barack Obama’s fickle and hesitant strategy for solving the nation’s economic problems.
Romney received a mostly polite – but also sometimes enthusiastic – response from the thousands of conservative activists in the audience. The biggest sustained applause he received was when he delivered this criticism of the president: “It’s going to take more than new rhetoric to put Americans back to work. It’s going to take a new president.”
The former Bain & Company CEO, whose business credentials have served as the linchpin of his case for the presidency, blamed the Obama presidency for the nation’s nine percent unemployment rate.
“President Barack Obama has stood watch over the greatest job loss in modern American history. And that, my friends, is one inconvenient truth that will haunt this president throughout history,” he said.
But polls have consistently said that the public largely blames the previous Republican administration more than the current White House for the state of the economy.
Also in his speech, Romney accused Obama of fashioning a new pro-business facade without an actual understanding of how business works, even implying that the president plagiarized his pro-growth rhetoric from Romney’s CPAC speech last year.
“The president is trying to show that he finally gets it—that he really isn’t a liberal after all. But his idea of conservative economic policy is to invite some corporate CEO’s to the White House for an evening of table-talk,” he said. “I’m sorry, Mr. President, but that’s not a policy, it’s a dinner party.”
“If I decide to run for president,” he added, pausing for a boisterous moment of encouragement from the crowd, “it won’t take me two years to wake up to the job crisis threatening America. And I won’t be asking Tim Geithner how the economy works—or Larry Summers how to start a business.”
And he tied free market ideals and capitalism to the notion of American exceptionalism – an ideal that Republicans often declare to be uncomfortable and unfamiliar to the current commander-in-chief.
"We believe in freedom, in opportunity. We believe in free enterprise and capitalism. We believe in the American dream. And we believe that the principles that made America the leader of the world today are the very principles that will keep America the leader of the world tomorrow.”
Early in his remarks, Romney also took shots at the White House’s diplomatic dealings and foreign policy strategy, although he avoided specific references to the uncertainty rocking Egypt. He slammed Obama as unsteady and incoherent in his handling of the New START nuclear arms treaty with Russia, the conflict between North and South Korea, and the uprising in Iran.
"An uncertain world has been made more dangerous by the lack of clear direction from a weak president," he said, later adding that he hopes the president will someday "finally be able to construct a foreign policy, any foreign policy."
The one thing missing from Romney's speech: any mention of the "ObamaCare" health-reform law particularly despised by this CPAC audience. Romney, so far, has struggled to make a solid argument against the president's health care law, which has many similarities to the law Romney championed during his tenure as governor of Massachusetts.