Obama’s blue-collar struggles loom large

A Youngstown worker vocalizes doubts shared by others in swing states.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Rob Kale works at a waste treatment plant in Youngstown. A former union president and a lifelong Democrat, Kale voted for Hillary Clinton in Ohio’s primary. But if Barack Obama wins the nomination, Kale is leaning toward Republican John McCain.

He says Obama hasn’t impressed him as a scrapper who’ll help those struggling with day-to-day economic issues.

“I don’t think he really has tried to embrace the working people, and I don’t know how well he would fight for them,” says Kale, 38. “He’s vague and he’s never spelled out what he’s going to do.”

As a result, Kale has focused on the values he feels McCain brings to the table, particularly those of patriotism and service to country.

“If it’s a choice between a war hero who suffered through as much as he did, and a guy whose wife said she wasn’t proud of this country, I’m going to choose the war hero,” Kale said Friday.

Kale’s stance points to an issue Obama faces as the likely Democratic presidential nominee — his difficulty appealing to blue-collar voters.

After those voters contributed to his trouncing last week in West Virginia, Obama’s quick trip to Cape Girardeau to speak to working-class voters seemed to clearly reflect his acknowledgment of the issue he faces — and his determination to do something about it.

In recent elections, the so-called Reagan conservatives, blue-collar conservatives or NASCAR Dads have been swing voters. They helped put Ronald Reagan in the White House twice in the 1980s, switched back to Bill Clinton in the 1990s, and largely went for George W. Bush the past two elections.

Obama’s chances of victory in November may hinge in large part on his ability to improve his standing among truck drivers, cops and bricklayers. Blue-collar voters are especially important because:

UThey tend to be concentrated in the big battleground states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

UThey wouldn’t stay home if they’re unhappy with the party’s nominee; a significant number, according to polls, would vote for McCain.

UTheir concerns — job insecurity, stagnant wages, and lost health care — are the core of the Democrats’ narrative this year.

Political analyst Donna Brazile, who ran Al Gore’s presidential bid in 2000, says Obama can overcome his current blue-collar blues.

“If he is the nominee, Senator Obama will have to do a lot more to reach out to people who did not rally to his cause,” she said, “but there’s no reason to hit the panic button with six months left in the campaign.”

Part of Obama’s problem in the primaries among working-class voters has been their strong allegiance to the Clintons, stemming from good memories of Bill Clinton’s presidency, Brazile said.

But others believe that winning over Democrats who are economically liberal but culturally conservative and strongly patriotic might be a steep road for Obama.

“These are not voters Obama has demonstrated he can win,” says John Fortier, a political expert at the American Enterprise Institute.

Most Democrats, including blue-collar voters, will support the nominee in the general election, Fortier says, but in a tight race, defections would matter in swing states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Missouri.

Former candidate John Edwards’ endorsement of Obama after the West Virginia loss was aimed at shoring up Obama’s support among blue-collar voters. And the next day the Steelworkers union, which had previously supported Edwards, endorsed Obama.

But Edwards’ speech drove home some of Obama’s difficulties in relating to blue-collar workers. Edwards spoke passionately about people struggling to make it and about kitchen-table issues. That resembled the message Clinton has settled on.

By contrast, Obama has focused largely on change and unity.

That’s not a message that will win over economically strapped middle-class voters, said Bob Bruno, who teaches labor and politics at the University of Illinois.

“They feel themselves under assault, and so a guy like Obama who talks about transformational politics doesn’t come across as a fighter who’s going to champion the cause of working people,” he said. “I think the only way he addresses that problem is to retool his message ... to speak to economic justice issues.”

Although most of the blue-collar workers who voted for Clinton were white, Bruno said race was not the decisive element.

“It has to do with ... issues of patriotism, faith and a sense of social and community values,” he said. “If you don’t appeal to these voters on the basis of their economic reality, they’ll make decisions on these other cultural values.”

Obama backers believe Obama’s blue-collar gap will disappear in the general election.

“Obama will be running against a candidate who wants to tax people’s health care benefits, who has said he doesn’t know all that much about the economy, and who doesn’t want to change trade policy,” said Marco Trbovich, chief spokesman for the Pittsburgh-based Steelworkers union.

And the backing of the Steelworkers and other unions will be a big advantage for the Democrat.

But Fortier said there might be a contradiction between Obama’s message of unifying the country and the aspirations of working people who believe they’ve received a raw deal compared with the wealthy and corporations.

“There’s a reason he appeals to the aspirations of educated, upscale voters, that he speaks in these cerebral tones. He’s going to have a hard time ... seeming more tough and hard-nosed on behalf of people whose concerns are more day-to-day economic issues,” Fortier said.

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