Reporting from Des Moines — On a sun-soaked terrace with the golden dome of the Iowa state Capitol behind him, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty made his long-anticipated announcement Monday that he would challenge Barack Obama for the presidency in 2012.
Blasting what he described as the president’s “fluffy promises of hope and change,” Pawlenty sought to cast himself as a truth teller and argued that spending in Washington was driving the nation’s economy off a cliff. He chided the president for backing a “pork-filled stimulus bill,” financial bailouts for well-connected businesses, and called the Democratic healthcare plan “an unmitigated disaster for our country.”
Pawlenty argued that the president, and in some cases other candidates, have failed to impress upon voters that the reforms required to rein in the deficit will require trillions of dollars of cuts. As part of that effort, Pawlenty said he was headed to Florida to tell wealthy seniors and young people that entitlement programs are on an unsustainable path and that he favored reducing costs of the Social Security program by means testing and raising the retirement age.
To applause, he said he would also visit Wall Street to tell the financial industry that if he’s elected “the era of bailouts, handouts, carve outs are over.” In a potentially perilous statement in Iowa, he also advocated phasing out ethanol subsidies.
“Our country is going broke, and the pain of the recent recession will pale in comparison to what’s coming if we don’t get spending in Washington, D.C., under control,” said Pawlenty, who was dressed in a dark suit with a cherry red tie and a flag pin in his lapel. “President Obama doesn’t have an economic plan. He just has a campaign plan, and the United States of America deserves much, much better.”
“Someone has to stand up and finally level with the American people. Someone has to lead. I will,” Pawlenty said.
The former governor has a difficult path ahead. Though he was governor of a neighboring state, he is struggling to boost his name recognition, and his poll numbers here have lagged in the single digits, as well as in the key early primary state of New Hampshire, where he sits far behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Though Pawlenty has touted his record cutting spending in Minnesota, his foes have pointed out that state leaders have been grappling with a projected deficit of $5 billion--which is one of the highest in the nation as a percentage of the state’s general fund--since his 2011 departure.
Though Pawlenty has boasted that he required the state government to “live within our means,” he relied on the stimulus package he criticizes to do so. The state’s former Republican Gov. Arne Carlson told the Los Angeles Times that Pawlenty relied on “heavy borrowings” and shifted costs to local governments “while not confronting the state's serious challenges."
Still, Pawlenty argued he was uniquely suited to unite the country after leading “one of the most liberal states in the country.” Seeking to set himself apart from other GOP contenders, Pawlenty touched on his Christian faith and stressed his Midwestern roots.
His wife, Mary, introduced her husband and his family as “folks from the heartland” with a strong work ethic who are “the salt of the earth.” Pawlenty told his now-familiar story of growing up in South St. Paul in a blue-collar family helping his family get by after his mother died and his father lost his job.
At one point in his speech--before stepping down from the stage to take questions from voters --Pawlenty proudly declared: “I’m not from Washington.”
“The values I learned are America’s values,” he said. “I know the American dream because I’ve lived it. I’m running for president to keep that dream alive.”