Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour on Friday told Republicans newly in charge of the U.S. House that they must keep voters' frustrations with the nation's lagging economy focused on Democrats who still run the Senate and control the White House.
Barbour told House Republicans that should learn the lessons of 1995, when some in the GOP became cocky after winning the majority. Some Republicans then asserted that President Bill Clinton didn't matter, giving his poll numbers time to improve and helping him win re-election a year later.
"There were some people in Congress who thought we were running the government," Barbour said.
Barbour, a former Republican National Committee chairman who helped the GOP take over the House in 1994, deflected questions what his proposed strategy would mean for his own potential challenge to President Barack Obama in 2012.
"I'm not going to make any decision about that until the spring," Barbour told reporters after addressing House lawmakers' strategy session here. "I'm going to get through my day job before looking at my next job."
But Barbour's advice has clear implications for the party trying to limit Obama to one term.
"We are a renewed and energized Republican majority, looking to do some great things this year," Majority Leader Eric Cantor said.
"We also understand that we as Republicans do not control this federal government. The other party does."
That rhetoric allows Republicans to keep the pressure on Democrats as stubbornly high unemployment and a lagging economy keep the public sour on Washington's efforts. Barbour said the GOP should recognize its limits _ and opportunities _ both on Capitol Hill and with the White House, which could be forced to compromise or bare the blame.
"House Republicans can try to stop bad things from going through, eliminate the funding of bad policies," he said. "But we can't pass laws unless the president agrees."
Another potential 2012 candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich who rose to power in the 1994 GOP sweep, spoke to the lawmakers as well and emphasized the lessons learned.
"This is not 1995; 2011 is not 1995," Gingrich said in private remarks provided by aides. "America's finances are worse. The American economy is weaker."
To that end, Gingrich said lawmakers have a simple charge: "The number one job of House Republicans is to focus on jobs."