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Obama: Big government 'has to change'

President Barack Obama delivers remarks on government reform, Friday, Jan. 13, 2012, in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

President Barack Obama delivers remarks on government reform, Friday, Jan. 13, 2012, in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON -- Seeking more power to shrink the government, President Barack Obama on Friday suggested smashing six economic agencies into one, an election-year idea intended to halt bureaucratic nightmares and force Republicans to back him on one of their own favorite issues.

"The government we have is not the government we need," Obama told business owners he'd gathered at the White House. Lawmakers seemed willing to at least consider his ideas.

Sounding like a manager of a disorganized company, and looking like one by pointing to slides as he spoke, Obama asked Congress to give him a kind of reorganization power no president has had since Ronald Reagan. It would guarantee Obama a vote, within 90 days, on any idea he offers to consolidate agencies, provided it saves money and cuts the government.

His first target: Merging six major trade and commerce agencies into a one-stop-shopping department for American businesses. The Commerce Department would be among those that would cease to exist.

Congress would keep the final say, but Obama would have a stronger hand to skip much of the outside lobbying and fighting and get right to a vote.

Attacking senseless duplication across the executive branch he runs, Obama said: "Why is it OK for our government? It's not. It has to change."

Politically, Obama is seeking advantage on the turf often owned by Republicans: Smaller government. He is attempting to directly counter Republican arguments that he has presided over the kind of regulation, spending and debt that can undermine the economy -- a dominant theme of this year's debate and one often cited by his potential re-election rival, Republican Mitt Romney.

Obama put himself on the side of business people who deal with the government daily and are exasperated by a maze of agencies, permits and websites.

"We can do this better," he told them. "So much of the argument out there all the time is up in 40,000 feet, these abstract arguments about who's conservative or who's liberal. ...You guys are just trying to figure out, how do we make things work? How do we apply common sense? And that's what this is about."

In making his case, the president sought to target the design of the bureaucracy as the problem, not the employees who serve it.

Congressional reaction seemed generally favorable, but cautious.

Republicans skeptically pointed to Obama's past promises as the size of the nation's debt keeps growing.

"It's not often that we see real proposals from this administration to make government smaller," said Rep. Fred Upton, the Michigan Republican who is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "I look forward to reviewing the proposal and hope that it will be the first of many to unravel the red tape."

Indeed, Obama promised more plans to shrink things if given more power, citing inefficiencies all across the government.