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Pawlenty’s Reach and the 2012 Surprise

From Barack Obama’s perspective, could Tim Pawlenty turn out to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing?

From Obama's perspective, could Tim Pawlenty be a wolf in sheep's clothing?


  • Mr. Pawlenty is an eminently viable contender. Team Obama would be well advised to take this to heart.
  • If Pawlenty is elected, going back to a white president of what is soon to be a "minority-majority" country would seem like a step backwards.
  • Mr. Pawlenty possesses the ability to articulate the nation's yearning for individual and collective self-betterment without any shrillness.

Why should the Obama team fear Tim Pawlenty? Doesn’t he seem too boyish and curiously wooden at the same time? That’s been the experience with him in one-on-one interviews, which is all U.S. TV audiences may have seen of him at this early stage.

But anybody watching his presidential campaign launch announcement, held in Iowa, came away with a different impression: a bit boyish, yes, but with the surprisingly alluring charms of a practiced televangelist, much in the Joel Osteen tradition.

With a soothing voice, mellifluously talking about his experiences and the audience’s in tackling common problems, he does appear sincere and experienced. It turns out that, even on Barack Obama’s well-honed craft, the famous community organizing (and smooth-talking) dimension, Mr. Pawlenty can hold his own against the president.

Mr. Pawlenty possesses the ability to articulate the nation’s yearning for individual and collective self-betterment without any shrillness — and, he will argue, unlike in Mr. Obama’s case, not just as an aspirational promise, but as a practiced concept.

Against all the predictable attacks of being too conservative, he can parry by saying he successfully governed for two terms in a historically liberal state in America’s heartland, Minnesota. “If I can do it there, I can do it anywhere,” is the clear message.

Now, one of the best arguments against Mr. Pawlenty — or any other Republican — is that, if elected, the GOP would have too much power. After all, it currently looks as if Republicans will hold the U.S. House of Representatives, gain the U.S. Senate and hold a 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court.

As the first six years of the Bush Administration proved, such a Republican sweep could have disastrous consequences. But outside the Beltway, few Americans think of the U.S. political landscape in this way.

Ironically, against such thoughts, Mr. Pawlenty will argue, mellifluously and by looking into the camera in his disarming, Joel Osteen-style, that he will be a fair arbiter of the different factions.

In fact, he will make it sound as if he will need to negotiate with Democrats a lot — even though, quite likely, those negotiations would be limited to overcoming their filibuster in the Senate.

Mr. Pawlenty will be able to assuage Americans by arguing that too many different cooks in the political kitchen just hold up America, that it is high time for decisive action — and that he, not Obama, is the man to accomplish that.

Why not Obama? He won’t even have to resort to describing him, falsely, as a socialist, as far too many Republicans have done. What he will do instead, certainly in the general campaign, is to stay with the tune that Mr. Obama lacked executive experience and that his first term suffered as a result — and that the election presents a critical turning point for America to get itself out of its economic rut.

That may be exaggerated, it may even be unfair, and it will certainly be irrelevant because after four bruising years in the White House, Mr. Obama has performed as well as could be expected.

But the election will be fought not so much over the fate of the unemployed, who are often too discouraged to vote, but over the sentiments of those many millions of Americans who are, at best, treading in place, if not falling slightly behind all the time.

To them, a new prophet can easily be presented as a good prophet. Subliminally, they can be tempted with the notion of having a humble, non-cowboy white guy back in the White House.

Mr. Obama would be cast as a nice affair, showing the country’s sense of openness and modernity — but an affair that’s lasted long enough for now because it didn’t deliver the goods.

Come to think of it, part of Mr. Pawlenty’s charm is that he has some of the sanctimoniousness of former president Jimmy Carter about him, even though he has also learned a great deal from Mr. Carter’s experience.

Determined communications, a steady focus on practical solutions and continually underscoring his executive experience are some of the ways Pawlenty is ensuring he doesn’t repeat Carter’s mistakes.

If Pawlenty is elected, going back to a white president of what is soon to be a “minority-majority” country would seem like a step backwards in an ever more heavily multiracial country.

However, one thing is true about the U.S. electorate: The elderly and whites are overrepresented in the electorate when compared to their population share. Mr. Obama’s hopes will depend on minority turnout, and that’s an unreliable factor for him. Consider that only about 31% of eligible Latino and Asian voters cast ballots in the 2010 U.S. congressional elections, compared with 49% of eligible white voters and 44% of eligible blacks.

How about counting on unions? They are tired of “being thrown under the bus,” in recent Washington parlance. After being relied upon heavily in each campaign season, they are taken for granted by Democrats right after the elections.

Of course, it would be politically foolish for union members to abandon the Democratic Party’s cause, but they just might do so in sufficient numbers to weaken President Obama.

These factors, combined with the narrow field of viable Republican contenders, makes Mr. Pawlenty an eminently viable contender. Team Obama would be well advised to take this to heart.

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About Stephan Richter

Director of the Global Ideas Center, a global network of authors and analysts, and Editor-in-Chief of The Globalist.

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