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Pawlenty's Song: A Down-Home Tune That Could Take Him to the Top

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Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced his candidacy today by setting a tone that could resonate with the American people. A lot of people assume that President Obama's above-the-fray campaign strategy will ensure his re-election, no matter what happens to the rest of his party's candidates. But I'm feeling a sense of déjà vu , a replay of the moment in early 2009 when a country song sang out a warning for the Democrats in 2010.

Nobody listened then. Check out Pawlenty's USA Today editorial and his announcement speech and tell me: Do you hear what I hear?

Pawlenty's editorial adopts the right-wing, anti-Social Security and anti-Medicare sales pitch lock, stock, and barrel: "I'm going to try something a little unusual in politics. I'm just going to tell the truth. Washington is broken, our country is going broke, and our long-term financial outlook will make the pain of the recent recession pale in comparison."

That simple, straightforward message sounds a lot like the one delivered by country music star (and former McCain campaign troubadour) John Rich in 2009. As we wrote back then, the message could resonate: "While they're livin' it up on Wall Street in that New York City town/here in the real world they're shutting Detroit down."

Pawlenty's message is the same one John Rich evoked in 2009 -- so successfully, in fact, that he was able to persuade noted country music lefty Kris Kristofferson to act in the song's moving and effective video, along with Mickey Rourke. If Pawlenty or another sane-sounding Republican can tap into the same simple, 'plain-spoken,' 'I'm not from these parts' style, Obama and the Democrats could be in trouble.

People who are familiar with the details know that the country isn't "broke." The national debt has risen because of the Bush tax cuts -- especially for the rich -- two wars, and the cost of repairing the economy after Wall Street corruption nearly destroyed it.

Now we face a grave long-term crisis brought on by refusal: refusal to end tax cuts for the rich, refusal to invest in jobs and economic growth, and refusal to acknowledge that unemployment's a greater threat to the economy than government spending. The Democrats' message has been muddled, in large part by Democratic refusal to send unequivocal messages about what's broken.

Enter Tim Pawlenty. His message is simple, straightforward, direct... and deceptive. Pawlenty won't tell you that tax cuts for the rich must end. He won't tell you that Social Security can be fixed just by lifting the payroll tax cap, or that our for-profit health system will break the American budget in the decades to come. But, as in 2009, this simple message looks like a winner.

"TPaw" brings the "TPain" directly to the president, too, with paragraphs entitled "Obama's Hopeless Hype" and comments like these: "The president's policies simply aren't working. And more than that, he won't even tell us the truth about the problems we're facing and what it's really going to take to get America back on the right track."

Pawlenty's anti-Obama strategy can be summed up with this paragraph:

Leadership isn't about fancy speeches and empty promises. It's not about telling people just what they want to hear. It's about telling the truth. Like too many Washington politicians, President Obama governs with an eye toward the next election, at the expense of the next generation. He would rather pretend there is no crisis and attack those who are willing to stand up and try to solve it rather than risk doing anything about it himself.

The president is vulnerable to attacks like these because his message is mixed and muddled. His recent deficit reduction speech is a perfect example: He gave a brilliant defense of government's role in ensuring a just and livable society, and he explained why government is needed to bring us out of our current economy, which is still a crisis for millions. Then he presented a pre-compromised set of proposals that undercut his own message.

He also continues to present half-measures and inadequate programs for the unemployment and the housing crisis, rather than coming forward with clear and bold solutions and negotiating down from there.

Last year we compared the public's mood to "blindsight," that medical phenomenon where patients believe they are blind but can actually see what's happening around them. The public knows that the economy's bad, no matter how many times they're told otherwise. And they feel a cognitive dissonance between Democratic rhetoric and Democratic action.

Enter the "outsider." Pawlenty concludes his paragraph-long attack on Obama by writing: "In Washington, they call that 'smart politics.' But I'm not from Washington."

There's a way out for the president and his administration, if they act quickly. But it involves a major change in strategy. They need to start presenting simple, straightforward, honest solutions that square with their rhetoric. They need to stop meeting the Republicans halfway in a way that muddles their own message and lets the GOP avoid responsibility for its own positions. They need to get tough on Wall Street and explain what's really wrong with Medicare and Social Security.

If they don't, they may find that a simple song is a lot more popular with the public than their own. And in November 2012 they may wind up singing the blues.