It's been a year since Mitt Romney dropped out of the Republican presidential race, but he remains an influential conservative voice particularly on economic issues. The former Massachusetts governor and star business consultant earned ovations at a House Republican retreat in January and recently signed on to headline a major Senate GOP dinner in April. He spoke with TIME about Obama's Oval Office debut, what's wrong with the economic-stimulus bill and what his own future may hold. (See pictures of Barack Obama behind the scenes on Inauguration Day.)
Your name has surfaced several times as a smart choice to replace Tom Daschle as nominee to head the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), given your work on health care in Massachusetts. What do you think?
Well, that's a very nice compliment, but I think my first choice would be to keep Governor Mike Leavitt in the spot. I think he's been one of the best HHS secretaries this country has ever seen.
What if Governor Leavitt didn't want to continue? Would you accept the job?
That's not something I think is very likely at all. But I'm honored by the compliment.
How do you think President Obama is doing so far? (See pictures of how Presidents age in office.)
I think President Obama is off to a rocky start. The theme "Yes, we can" seems to have been replaced with "Well, maybe we can't." I believe that with all the challenges America faces, the simple solutions and the hopes that were sold by the Obama team are inadequate to the task ahead.
The Cabinet appointments have been subject to a disappointing vetting process. His forays into foreign affairs produced a very unfortunate comment that America has been "dictating" to other nations.
And rather than proposing and driving through Congress his own economic-stimulus plan, President Obama ceded the construction to House Democrats. They in turn have come up with a pork-laden, ineffective piece of legislation, which I think Americans are increasingly recognizing will not solve the economic challenges we face.
Is there a need for any government stimulus at all? What should it look like?
I do think a stimulus bill is needed. It has been demonstrated time and again that returning money to taxpayers in the form of a tax reduction has the most bang for the buck. If there's going to be federal spending, it should be devoted exclusively to very high-priority, urgent projects that can be completed on a rapid basis. But the congressional Democrats added a basketful of liberal projects that have little, if anything, to do with stimulating the economy.
President Obama has announced an executive pay cap at some companies taking federal bailout money. A wise move?
I am very uncomfortable with government dictating the course for managing an enterprise. This should be done by the shareholders and by the board of directors, not by the Federal Government.
November was a rough month for the Republican Party, and a Gallup analysis recently found only five states left in the "red" column. What explains the GOP's rut?
I think politics is largely associated with individuals and less with party labels. I think without question that the economic downturn, occurring as it did during the tenure of President Bush, has cast a shadow over anyone in his party.
The prospects of our party I think are bright. I fundamentally believe that the Republican Party will do what is right for the country, and the Democratic Party will do what is right for their special interests. (See pictures of Mitt Romney on the campaign trail.)
Some observers have warned of a potential schism in the party between moderate voices and those farther on the right, like Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh. Does that possibility concern you?
I'm not terribly disturbed by the fact that our party is a relatively large tent. After all, we aspire to receive the support of slightly over half of the American people, and that's not going to be a homogeneous group.
Governor Palin excited a lot of voters last year. Can you imagine rallying around her in 2012?
Governor Palin is an effective and popular political voice, and I believe she will continue to draw interest among party faithful and that she'll have an impact on the party's direction in the future.
What are your thoughts on the anniversary of leaving the presidential race?
This has been a good year. I wish I would have won the nomination and won the presidency. And yet, you don't look back.
What's keeping you busy now?
I help an entity called the Free and Strong America PAC. Our efforts are to help elect conservative candidates across the country. Perhaps the activity that is taking the most of my time these days is writing a book. (See the screwups of Campaign '08.)
Could that book lay the groundwork for a future presidential run?
It's not a political book so much as it is a discussion of the economic and foreign policy challenges that we face.
O.K., but can we expect to see you running for office again?
I really don't know what the future holds. Like most Americans, I want to see Barack Obama adopt effective, correct principles and successfully lead our country. And so any discussion of future politics for me is, I think, premature.
Were you at all surprised by how much attention your hair got during the campaign?
[Laughs.] It's long been a source of self-deprecating humor. I love to make fun of my helmet hair. And so I guess I bring that on myself.