WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — Is Karl Rove becoming a softy in his advancing years?

The "architect" of Republican former President George W. Bush's two victorious presidential races and favorite nemesis of Democrats praised President Barack Obama as much as he criticized him Thursday before a crowd of Virginia business leaders, corporate executives and lobbyists.

Rove warned a Virginia Chamber of Commerce luncheon that Obama-backed spending priorities would soon push the nation's public debt beyond sustainable levels.

"We have a federal budget that is 24 percent bigger than it was a year ago," Rove said. "Left untouched, that would mean over the next decade the federal debt would grow $3.1 trillion more."

He also focused on a favorite target of the new GOP House majority that will take over in January: Obama's health reforms. He said the plan includes a "perverse incentive" that will prompt employers to drop their health plans for workers and leave them to enroll in government-backed "insurance exchanges." Employers would pay a $2,000 fine for each uncovered worker, but that's only a fraction of the premiums they're paying, Rove said.

"I suspect we will see that happening all across America," Rove said. He said a study by the auditing firm PriceWaterhouse Coopers estimated that 111 million Americans could lose private health coverage through their employers under health care reform.

Rove said that if tax cuts for high-income earners — something Rove helped Bush enact — are allowed to expire, it would be equal to the largest tax increase in U.S. history.

He also blasted Obama's order Wednesday putting oil and gas reserves off the Atlantic Coast off limits, saying the decision would harm economic development in Virginia and other Southeastern states and enrich "the petro-kings in the Persian Gulf."

But Rove — a conservative Wall Street Journal columnist and Fox News contributor famous for baiting Democrats — was uncharacteristically charitable to Obama. The Republican backlash in last month's congressional elections, he said, appeared to have a sobering effect on both parties about the gravest issues confronting the nation.

"I do think that in Washington, there is a growing general recognition on both sides of the aisle that we can't keep going on the way we've been going," Rove said.

Obama is right, he said, to call for making research and development tax credits for U.S. businesses, now renewed by Congress annually, permanent.

Rove called for American business to support Obama's efforts to renew and toughen the U.S. hand in free trade agreements pending with South Korea, Panama and Colombia.

"Americans can compete anywhere in the world as long as the playing rules are fair," Rove said.

He was most emphatic, however, in lauding Obama's decision to allow the aircraft carrier USS George Washington to the Yellow Sea for previously scheduled joint military exercises with ally South Korea after a Nov. 23 artillery exchange with North Korea.

Rove said the president's action signaled to China that it's time to use its influence on the unstable leadership of its neighbor and ally, North Korea, as its leader, Kim Jong Il, transfers power to his youngest son.

"It sends a message to China (that) you better start thinking more seriously about reining in your partner, North Korea, or you're going to find a larger military presence in your back porch than you want," Rove said.

Rove condemned the leak of sensitive U.S. intelligence documents last week to the Web site WikiLeaks. He said it left American allies to doubt the reliability and confidentiality of the U.S. government, and he called for the United States to prosecute WikiLeaks' fugitive founder, Julian Assange, on espionage charges.

"We should go after him and go after him hard," Rove said.