In his first public event since taking steps toward a presidential run, Jeb Bush on Friday called on political leaders to overhaul the country's immigration and education systems, increase job training programs and ease energy regulations to spur economic growth.
"We're in the fifth, almost sixth year of a recovery and 60 percent of Americans believe we're still in a recession," Bush told the annual convention of the National Automobile Dealers Association. "They're not dumb. It's because they are in a recession."
While Bush agreed to appear at the convention long before he began exploring a White House bid, his comments offered the most detailed picture yet of what a presidential campaign might look like. He outlined a wide-ranging policy agenda that he said would boost the country's lagging middle class and restore U.S. standing abroad.
Bush, like several of his potential GOP rivals, is hoping to tap a spirit of economic populism amid an uneven recovery. But his remarks also showed how he is trying to appeal to the GOP base without shifting his positions on issues that remain deeply unpopular with conservative voters.
Winning applause from the overflow crowd, Bush called President Barack Obama's health care law a "monstrosity" and a "job killer." Without naming specific executive actions, he said the next occupant of the White House should "roll back the things where the president has gone beyond his constitutional authority."
On energy, Bush won cheers when he called on government to ease regulations on hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking" — even though "it's not cool on the coasts" — and to open federal lands and waters to energy exploration. Such changes could "reindustrialize" the nation, he said.
On immigration, however, Bush struck a more centrist tone, maintaining his longstanding support for a comprehensive overhaul and calling immigrants "an engine of economic vitality."
The government needs to first secure the border, increase workplace enforcement and stiffen the visa tracking system, he said. It should also give "legalized status" to the millions of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. illegally, he said, but they should pay fines, learn English and "get in the back of the line" for citizenship so they can be "full partners" in the economy.
Bush cast Obama as a weak leader on foreign policy, one afraid to exercise American power on the world stage. He blamed the president for the rise of the Islamic State group in the Middle East, saying the U.S. should have intervened much earlier.
"Each time he had a chance to engage and protect American interests, he pulled back. And now we've got a huge problem," Bush said.
Citing the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and his father, George H.W. Bush, among others, Bush called for strong yet conciliatory leadership to break Washington gridlock and foster "a climate of consensus and compromise."
"We're not going to win votes as Republicans unless we can lay out a hopeful, optimistic message," he said. "Hope and a positive agenda wins out over anger and reaction every day of the week."
The former governor has already started laying the groundwork for a potential campaign by hiring staff for his political action committee, reaching out to key GOP leaders in early-voting states and keeping an aggressive fundraising schedule.
On Thursday, Bush met in Utah with Mitt Romney, the GOP's 2012 presidential nominee and another possible candidate in 2016. Bush told the crowd Friday that they "put aside" any awkwardness of their competing bids and discussed policy. He said they would make their decisions independent of each other.
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