SAN ANTONIO, Fla. — Jeb Bush wouldn't say Wednesday night whether he's likely to run for president in 2016, but at Saint Leo University he did suggest a surprising role model for the sort of president he'd strive to be: Lyndon Johnson.
No, the conservative former Florida governor didn't hail Johnson's Great Society initiatives. Instead, he hailed Johnson's forceful, hands-on leadership that, among other things, produced a 25 percent across-the-board income tax cut.
"He went and he cajoled, he begged, he threatened, he loved, he hugged, he did what leaders do, which is they personally get engaged to make something happen," said Bush, who recently read Robert Caro's latest Johnson biography.
Bush's homage to Johnson before several hundred people at the Pasco County campus was one of his only shots at President Barack Obama, who has earned a reputation for avoiding hands-on negotiating with congressional leaders.
"I saw an unnamed person in the White House about a month ago say, 'You know, Lincoln would have had a hard time in the climate we're in today, with the Republicans being so intractable,' " Bush said. "Really? You're comparing what we have today to a civil war? Really?"
Mostly, though, the ex-governor many Republicans hope will run for president talked about the potential for bipartisan cooperation to make several basic steps to generate more economic growth.
His prescription amounts to a three-legged stool: a focus on ramping up North American energy production; comprehensive immigration reform that would make America more welcoming to nonnative innovators and entrepreneurs; and education reforms to ensure America is equipped to sustain the growth generated by the first two legs.
"The greatest news that has happened since the commercialization of the Internet is that the United States has the potential in the very near term to become the largest producer of oil and gas in the world," Bush said, noting that advances in so-called "fracking" and horizontal drilling are already dramatically growing the natural gas industry.
With thoughtful safeguards and regulations, Bush said, the natural gas revolution stands to reindustrialize the country, create millions of high-wage jobs, cut greenhouse gas emissions, save consumers money and require a smaller military presence overseas and "not put the lives at risk of brave men and woman for other countries."
Bush has a book coming out next month about immigration reform, and he argued Wednesday that sensible immigration policies could be another major growth engine. As the population ages, the country needs policies to ensure a strong workforce, and those would include encouraging more people learning science and technology skills at American universities to stay in the country.
Both parties deserve blame for the status quo, he said, with Republicans talking tough about the rule of law "as a way to win primaries," and Democrats sitting back and letting the Republican immigration rhetoric lose them general elections.
The country needs to control the borders and enforce the rule of law, but also should provide a pathway to legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants already here if they pay a fine, learn English and abide by the law, he said.
"To me — and I'm here at this great Catholic institution and this is what my church teaches me — it is completely un-American to require people living in the shadows."
But economic growth won't last unless the country gets a grip on its education system, said Bush, who has been crusading for years for greater accountability.
As governor, Bush sought to ban offshore drilling within 100 miles of Florida shores, but he said Wednesday the BP oil spill — occurring in deep water far away from Florida — led him to rethink that. With technological advances, the risks can be minimized, he said.
"I think we should be part of the solution in creating energy security for our country. … We can't be antiprogress, we can't be anti-innovation, antitechnology," he said.