Blue collars for Barack

 
FROM OHIO TO PENNSYLVANIA
 
 
Obama works on appeal
to working-class voters
 

ORIS STUART, 65, watched as his son Chris, 28, changed the brake pads on his car in this street in Philadelphia. The Stuarts said they supported Sen. Barack Obama, who is most popular in the poor black neighborhoods and the upper-income white neighborhoods that gave Mayor Mike Nutter, a supporter of Sen. Hillary Clinton, his greatest margins of victory.
Ruth Fremson/NEW YORK TIMES
 
 
Tribune
 
 
BEAVER FALLS, Pa. – Western Pennsylvania is known for sturdy things, like steel and quarterbacks, not for its poetry.
 
Joe Namath grew up in Beaver Falls. Joe Montana came from down the road a bit in Monongahela. Dan Marino, Johnny Unitas and George Blanda also are among the remarkable line of great quarterbacks who emerged from the nearby valleys and steel towns, a region where life is full of hard work and hard knocks.
 
The blue-collar workers who populate the area are quintessential Reagan Democrats, descendants of European immigrants drawn here by the promise of work in the coal mines and steel mills who allied with the Democratic Party as they formed unions. Their ties to the party loosened following the economic stagnation of the 1970s and conflict over cultural issues, such as guns and abortion.
 
The political judgment they make in the Pennsylvania Democratic primary next Tuesday will be one of the next great tests in the presidential campaign.
 
They will be a crucial constituency in the primary. But possibly more significantly, their votes will provide a fresh reading on the appeal of Barack Obama among white working-class voters that party officials and convention superdelegates will be watching, along with results from the Indiana primary on May 6, as they consider whether to fall in behind Obama and end a potentially divisive contest for the Democratic nomination.
 
“If Sen. [Hillary] Clinton beats Sen. Obama by a big margin – 15 [percentage] points or better – she will have planted fresh doubts about his chances in the general election,” said Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank allied with the moderate Democratic Leadership Council.
 
Obama has struggled to win over these blue-collar voters in recent primaries. A question about his difficulties in Pennsylvania rural areas provoked Obama’s recent controversial remarks at a San Francisco fundraiser that economic distress has made people in small-town America “bitter” and led them to “cling to” guns or religion.
 
It is these voters foremost that Obama will be trying to address in the ABC presidential debate Wednesday night at 7 p.m. Central Time.
 
In Beaver Falls, the soaring eloquence of Obama, acclaimed author and former Harvard Law Review president, is having a tough time against the durable appeal of the Clinton dynasty and Hillary Clinton, the battle-tested political warrior.
 
Obama supporters were hard to find at the high school baseball diamond, where parents watching the game protected themselves against the chill with Pittsburgh Steelers blankets or hooded Beaver Falls Tigers sweatshirts. So too at L’il Joe’s tavern, where middle-aged men in light-blue Pittsburgh Penguins jerseys jumped and cheered after each goal during the hockey team’s playoff win Monday night.
 
Despite the political controversy over Obama’s San Francisco remarks, only a few of the more than two dozen people interviewed said they had heard of them. ESPN’s “Sportscenter” is more popular among this crowd than MSNBC’s “Hardball.”
 
But local residents said they were drawn to Clinton because of her longer political track record, a more-plain spoken manner and memories of better times when a Clinton was last in the White House.
 
“When Bill was president, I was working seven days a week,” said Mike Davis, 49, co-owner of the tavern and a factory worker at a ceiling-tile manufacturer.
 
“The one thing I care about when they’re running for president is me working,” Davis added. “There’s going to be wars and things. But I want to be working. I don’t want to be out on the street with a tin cup. I don’t want jobs going to Mexico.”
 
Down the bar, sitting beside her boyfriend and a teammate from their co-ed softball team, Stephanie Mohr, 26, a scheduler for a security company, judged Obama as suspiciously “glossy.”
 
Likewise, at the baseball diamond, Cindy Reda, 42, a teacher’s aide who rushed toward the field to applaud her son’s hit, spoke skeptically of the fine language that has impressed so many of Obama’s admirers.
 
“He speaks more – I don’t want to say over your head – but he uses more clichés. She’s more straight up. For him, I’m not quite sure what he’s saying. But he says it eloquently – all the time,” said Reda, a trace of disdain evident in her final words.
 
Indeed, Clinton’s prosaic, nose-to-the-grindstone style can be seen as an asset. Tracey Chiappetta, a 47-year-old homemaker and part-time office manager for her husband’s business, paid Clinton a compliment that people here can relate to: “She’s a hard worker.”
 
Despite Obama’s humble origins in a family of modest means and early days as a community organizer in economically ravaged neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side – a biography he emphasizes on the campaign trail – his public persona shows more of the polish of an Ivy League institutions.
 
Obama’s fast rise in politics may provide him the advantages of a newcomer but it also suggests a charmed path through life. That contrasts with Clinton’s well-known marital and political travails.
 
William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former policy adviser to several Democratic presidential campaigns as well as the Clinton White House, said, “Obama sometimes gives the air of someone who could slide into second base without getting his uniform dirty. That elegance appeals to some people but it can also create a distance to many people.”
 
It is unclear how much Obama’s task may be complicated by subtle racism. In discussing the candidates, plenty of people in Beaver Falls wondered whether America is “ready” for a black president, though they often expressed the same concern about a female president.
 
But Obama clearly has set a priority on winning over working-class voters in Pennsylvania.
 
He began his campaign in this state with a six-day bus tour through industrial towns that featured regular photo ops of visits to such blue-collar hangouts as factory floors, sports bars, hot dog stands and a bowling alley – where he totaled an infamous 37 in seven frames.
 
Though a Democratic candidate does not necessarily need to win the white working class bloc to win the nomination or even the general election, he or she must at least do better than 2004 nominee John Kerry, who lost the group to President Bush by 23 percentage points, said Ruy Teixeira, a visiting fellow at Brookings and author of several books on political demography.
 
All but two of the 12 most closely contested states in the last two presidential elections have representations of white working-class voters well above the national average. New Mexico and Florida are the exceptions. It is far from certain that performance within a Democratic primary can predict how a candidate will do in a general election campaign when the opponent is a Republican. But the primaries offer a rare opportunity to speak to voters while they are engaged in the campaign.
 
And in November, Pennsylvania will be one of the biggest prizes.
 
 
 
Obama shows new down-to-earth oratory
 

SENATOR Barack Obama speaks to an estimated 22,000 people during a rally on Monday at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Damon Winter/NEW YORK TIMES
 
1st black US President-to-be skillfully trying
to address white-working-class discontent
Tuesday, 1 April 2008
 
 
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – The Speech is his finely polished sword, a transcendent weapon. Seen and heard on a thousand YouTube postings, Senator Barack Obama’s speeches have made a happening of that hoariest of campaign forms, the stump speech.
 
But Mr. Obama sheaths that sword more often now. He is grounding his lofty rhetoric in the more prosaic language of white-working-class discontent, adjusting it to the less welcoming terrain of Pennsylvania. His preferred communication now is the town-hall-style meeting.
 
So in Johnstown, a small, economically depressed city tucked in a valley hard by the Little Conemaugh River, Mr. Obama on Saturday spoke to the gritty reality of a city that ranks dead last on the Census Bureau’s list of places likely to attract American workers. His traveling companion, Senator Bob Casey, Democrat of Pennsylvania, introduced the candidate as an “underdog fighter for an underdog state.”
 
Mr. Obama, a quicksilver political student, picked up that cue. He often mentions his background as a community organizer but in passing, a parenthetical. Not this time. “I got into public service as an organizer,” Mr. Obama told these 1,200 mostly white Pennsylvanians in a local high school gymnasium. “There were a group of churches, mostly Catholic parishes, and they hired me for $12,000 plus car fare.”
 
That detail drew knowing chuckles in a town where the median income hovers at just over $20,000. “So I got myself believing that the most important thing is not to be an elected official but to hold them accountable.”
 
Then, echoing Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s focus on bread-and-butter concerns, Mr. Obama went on to talk about the price of gas and to offer the precise amount of his health care premium and to explain exactly what he would do about the foreclosure rate and Big Oil and Big Energy and how he would stop companies from moving to China.
 
A dollop of denunciation
 
On Monday, he added a dollop of denunciation of corporate salaries at Countrywide, a company at the center of the subprime loan implosion. “So they get a $19 million bonus while other folks are losing their homes,” he said in Lancaster.
 
“What’s wrong with this picture?”
 
Mr. Obama’s effort to master a plain-spoken and blunt language that extends back centuries in Pennsylvania is accompanied by no small stakes. Voters here, as in neighboring Ohio, where Mr. Obama lost the white and aging blue-collar vote, tend to elect politicians whose language rarely soars and whose policy prescriptions come studded with detail.
 
“The problem with talking about hope all the time is that these are not hopeful lands; Obama is talking change to people who equate change with life getting worse,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic Party consultant who has studied the political culture of these working-class states with a Talmudic intensity.
 
Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Obama’s Democratic rival, has studied this argot. Her style of declamation tends toward that of the school valedictorian, but she grounds her talks in detail after detail after detail – her plan for stanching foreclosures, for tuberculosis, for tax breaks and so on and on, every program coming with a precise dollar sign attached.
 
Precarious details of life
 
A thrill these talks are not, but G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, noted that politics that attended to the precarious details of life could provide comfort to the hard-pressed.
 
“If you’re an unemployed steelworker, a former coal miner, you want to know about job training, who pays your health care,” Dr. Madonna said. “Obama’s speeches are uplifting but without much specificity, and that’s a tough sell for working people who don’t live in a world of ideas.”
 
Mr. Obama grabbed a big chunk of the male working-class vote in Wisconsin, and another chunk in Virginia and in Maryland. But Pennsylvania is both blue-collar and aging – it has the third highest median age in the nation. And that has proved to be a troublesome demographic for him and a rich target for Mrs. Clinton.
 
So, noted David Axelrod, Mr. Obama’s chief political strategist, voters can expect to hear the candidate emphasizing his organizing roots. “What we want to do is acquaint people with that dimension of his history,” Mr. Axelrod said. “A lot of this can be pleasing, but empty patter unless you can establish your authenticity.”
 
His challenge comes laden with complication. Pennsylvania’s culture, as the historian David Hackett Fischer noted in his book “Albion’s Seed,” is rooted in the English midlands, where Scandinavian and English left a muscular and literal imprint. These are people distrustful of rank, and finery, and high-flown words. It should come as no surprise that the word “blather” originated here.
 
Mr. Obama does not shrink from arguing that the days when high school graduates could find good-paying union job in mills and factories are gone. In Johnstown, he spoke of retrofitting shuttered steel mills into high-tech factories to build wind-powered turbines.
 
“I don’t want to make a promise that I can bring back every job that was in Johnstown,” he said. “That’s not true.”
 
Some in the audience applauded; others sat stolidly.
 
‘Romance in the Rust Belt’
 
“There is a romance in the Rust Belt about bringing back those old industrial jobs and the culture those jobs represented,” Mr. Sheinkopf said. “Their message to a politician is, Restore our jobs, restore our culture.”
 
(Senator John McCain, now the presumptive Republican nominee, took this same lesson in the Michigan primary, when he suggested that high-paying industrial jobs were a thing of the past. His opponent, Mitt Romney, insisted he could somehow summon that lost time, and he won handily).
 
The candidate’s best weapon in this race just might be Senator Casey. Laconic to the core, a politician who dominates the working-class cities of Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, he seems intent on refashioning his candidate – still very much a long shot in the primary. In his telling, Mr. Obama is nearly a shot-and-a-beer guy.
 
“We can’t just curse the darkness. We have to do our best to roll up our sleeves,” Mr. Casey said. “He’ll fight for your jobs, and your families’ jobs. Understand this: All of our battles are his battles.”
 
Mr. Obama stood and watched; he might as well have been taking notes.
 
 
 
Working, middle-class voters
in Ohio leaning toward Obama
  

ALLISON Zelman (center in black) trained precinct captains about Texas’ caucuses at the Obama campaign office in Corpus Christi, Ohio. Texas’s primary, in which two-thirds of the delegates are chosen, is followed on Tuesday night (March 4) by a caucus, which determines the remaining delegates  

Michael Stravato/NEW YORK TIMES

Economy-driven vote: People reeling from
job losses, housing woes to play key role


By BEN LEVISOHN
Monday, 3 March 2008
 
FOR MOST of her adult life, Kirsten Heft has voted Republican. A stay-at-home mother of two who lives on the outskirts of Columbus, Heft was raised in a GOP family, and her husband, Brian, a project manager at Motorola and a member of the Air Force Reserves, is even more staunchly Republican. She voted twice for George W. Bush, and the GOP always seemed the way to go.
 
But as Ohio heads into the critical Mar. 4 vote, Heft has decided she’ll register to vote in the Democratic primary. Fed up with the struggle to make ends meet on a budget without wiggle room, worried about how they’ll manage to save for college for 9-year-old Travis and 7-year-old Robin, and outraged that her sister-in-law, recently diagnosed with cancer, has to worry as much about the cost of treatment as she does about getting better, Heft is going with Illinois Senator Barack Obama. “Thinking about how you’re going to pay for your care shouldn’t be the first thing on your mind when your doctor shows you your scans,” says Heft. “Economic issues are key for me, and I think the Democrats are more interested in doing things that will help get the middle class back on track.”
 
With a large swath of voters who can’t be counted on to vote reliably Democratic or Republican, this quintessential swing state is once again set to play a critical role in the Presidential election, both in the Mar. 4 tally and the general contest in November. And the current mood is decidedly more sour than in 2004, when President Bush eked out a narrow win in the hard-fought Ohio race to clinch his reelection. That year, Democratic candidate John Kerry stressed the economy in his bid for Ohio votes, but the GOP‘s appeal to conservative social values carried the day.
 
This time around, though, an intense focus on helping Ohio’s battered blue-collar and middle-class voters could favor the Democrats, especially if they continue to attract moderate Republicans and the 10% of the electorate that is made up of independents. New York Senator Hillary Clinton and Obama are now borrowing a page from the playbook used in 2006 by Sherrod Brown to defeat Mike DeWine, Ohio’s Republican incumbent, for the U.S. Senate. Unlike John Kerry, Brown succeeded in turning the state’s troubles into an electoral advantage. As a majority of independents and many Republicans abandoned the GOP, Brown grabbed 56% of the vote. Democratic candidates for a host of other offices from the governor on down also swept out their Republican rivals. “By focusing his populist streak on middle-class anxiety, [Brown] did a much better job tapping into concerns about the economy,” says Herb Asher, a political science professor at Ohio State University.
 
The heated rhetoric used in Ohio by Obama and Clinton gives some hint of how the Democrats’ eventual nominee may play the general election. With much of its manufacturing base devastated by global competition and the highest rate of home foreclosures in the nation, Ohio is at the epicenter of two of the economy’s biggest challenges. Those issues, along with the high cost of and limited access to health care, increasingly have become the focus of the campaign.
 
Both Clinton and Obama have criticized trade deals such as NAFTA that many voters here blame for the loss of jobs. Obama has urged companies to be “patriot employers” by creating good-paying jobs in the U.S. with benefits, while Clinton has pledged to appoint a “trade prosecutor” to enforce agreements and crack down on unfair Chinese practices. Each has amped up the attacks on oil companies, drugmakers, insurers, high-paid CEOs, and other corporate interests they say have benefited in recent years at the expense of ordinary Americans. “Both are taking an increasingly populist tone, molded for what they think Ohio wants,” says Zach Schiller, the research director of Policy Matters Ohio, a public policy research organization.
 
Beyond anxiety
 
Ohio’s plight is a vivid reminder that manufacturing still provides a livelihood to millions of Americans – and that the agony of U.S. manufacturing’s decline is far from over. Since 2000 the state has lost 236,000 manufacturing jobs, a 23.3% drop. One sign of the times: In 1995, General Motors was Ohio’s largest private employer, with some 63,200 employees, while Wal-Mart Stores was ranked No.6, with 15,100. Today the discount retailer is the state’s top source of jobs with 52,000 workers. GM employs just 12,300.
 
Many Ohioans fear things could get worse. Steven Cochrane, senior managing director for Moody’s Economy.com, says Ohio is already probably in recession, and new signs of trouble are popping up. Standing in a showroom loaded with brightly painted new Fusions and Escapes, R. Douglas Seibert, the executive vice-president and general manager of Columbus car dealer Graham Ford, doesn’t need to consult a forecast to know a slowdown is hitting home. He’s seen it in the thinning traffic to the dealership. A year or so ago he might have sold 200 cars a month. Now he’s closer to 100. And most buyers these days are looking for used vehicles or fuel-efficient cars, which bring lower prices and far smaller margins than the big SUVs that used to be his bread and butter.
 
The growing woes have made many receptive to the anti-trade talk they’re hearing from the Democratic contenders. Mansfield, an hour north of Columbus, used to be known as a place to go for a job; Whirlpool, Tappan, and a host of other manufacturers all had plants there. Now the hulking GM plant on the outskirts of town is the last of the big factories left. As snow piled up in the half-empty GM parking lot early one recent evening, Joe Toth, a production worker with 22 years on the job, fretted about the future. From a high of over 4,000, the plant has shrunk to around 1,700 workers, and a new round of buyouts is in the works. Toth, 45, is gripped by the stories he hears around town. The local rubber products company, Swan Hose, that offered employees just $100 severance for each year worked when it laid them off and transferred production to China. The GM worker who took a buyout in 2006 – and is now about to lose his home to foreclosure. “Is this an anxious time? That’s putting it politely,” says Toth. “Stark fear is more like it.”
 
Toth, a dyed-in-the wool Democrat who wants to see NAFTA canceled, worries about how he would pay his bills, pare down his debt, and continue to care for his 84-year-old mother if he were to lose his job. He likes the candidates’ focus on the economy: Issues like Iraq and terrorism are much further down his list of priorities. “You can have all the national defense you want, but what good is it if your middle class is crumbling around you?” he asks. While many of his fellow workers supported John Edwards and still don’t know who to back, he’s leaning toward Obama.
 
The housing crisis is also much on the minds of many Ohio voters: 3.72% of all the state’s mortgages are in foreclosure, according to the Mortgage Bankers Assn. The overly aggressive lending practices seen elsewhere bear much of the blame, but the consequences have been compounded as many homeowners have lost their jobs or ended up in new ones at lower pay. Once-thriving working-class neighborhoods in Cleveland and other struggling industrial cities in the state’s northeast have been particularly hard hit as house after house sits empty. Many sport “For Sale” signs – but a combination of vandalism, the surplus of properties on the market, and the lack of buyers has left them virtually unsalable.
 
If the problems started in the industrial cities, they’ve now spread to the middle-class exurban communities – sprawling expanses of newly built subdivisions that have sprouted around the state’s major cities in the past decade or so. Just north of Columbus, Delaware County long boasted of being the state’s fastest-growing region, as miles of cornfields were transformed into neighborhoods for an expanding cadre of white-collar workers in health care, government, and other service sectors. Over the past two years, Delaware County has earned a new distinction: Among Ohio’s 20 largest counties, it’s now suffering the fastest growth in foreclosures.
 
The mortgage troubles have sent prices tumbling and stalled sales throughout much of the state. Just a few minutes outside the Delaware County border, 41-year-old Sueann Nuss lives in a small home with her husband, Tim, and two children, 3-year-old Francesca and 19-month-old Elijah. The Nusses are part of a modest neighborhood of starter homes that in better times were quickly snapped up for around $150,000 to $200,000 as soon as they came on the market. But recently, Nuss has watched as several houses that sat unsold for nearly two years have gone for rent instead.
 
For Nuss, a Democrat who voted for Kerry and who now backs Clinton, it’s one more sign of an economy that simply isn’t working. “It’s just getting harder and harder for people. It shouldn’t be this tough,” she says. Between ever-rising prices and health insurance that covers less and less, she wonders: “How did things get this bad?” While Nuss doesn’t worry that Tim, a nurse-practitioner, will ever lack for a job, she thinks the government should create more incentives to keep companies from moving jobs overseas and encourage people to buy American-produced goods.
 
The question for November is whether the tilt toward the Democrats will hold. Edd Dunlap is the sales and marketing manager for Compass Homes, a small custom-home builder in Delaware County. A longtime Republican and Bush supporter who nonetheless voted for the Democrats’ Brown in 2006, he scoffs at some of the more populist lines he’s hearing from the Democrats. “One of the candidates is complaining about a CEO making more in a day than the average worker makes in a year,” says Dunlap. “I say so what – I hope he does. If the CEO is making a lot of money, that means the business is running well.” The candidate making that complaint is Barack Obama. Yet for all that he mocks the current anti-business tone, Dunlap is intrigued by the Illinois senator. Although Dunlap likes Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), he’s worried about his age. While a vote for Clinton is out of the question, he says he’ll give Obama a closer look if he ends up as the nominee. “If he gets more substantive, I’d consider him,” he says.
 
Jim McGregor runs McGregor Metalworking Cos., a family-owned business in Springfield that makes components for auto and other industries. The past few years have been tough, as intense price pressure from struggling domestic rivals as well as low-cost suppliers from China and elsewhere have undercut his profits. At the same time, he’s had to invest heavily in the business to meet his customers’ demands. With steel costs up as much as 30% in the past three months, he’s facing an even bigger margin squeeze. His daily struggles make him leery of this talk of patriotic employers and saving jobs. “There’s a lot of ‘feel-good’ stuff being said now,” he says. “But there’s no comprehension on their part that if an employer can’t get a return on investment, he can’t do the things he needs to do to survive.”
 
A staunch Republican, McGregor is firmly behind McCain. The Arizona senator has mostly talked about tax cuts as the way to revive the economy. But McGregor says McCain will have to offer up more specifics on how he would address the state’s woes if he wants to bring Ohio back into the GOP camp. “If he doesn’t get into the details, he won’t get elected,” he says. McGregor is confident that will happen – but he also worries that the Democratic rhetoric is raising unrealistic expectations that can’t be met. “What will any of them do to correct the problems?” he asks. “That’s the real question.”
 
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