Big Politico Piece Misses Key Ingredient

Again (and again, and again), it’s the economy

Politico’s big lead story today on Barack Obama’s struggle to win the white working-class vote is an interesting read with one big missing piece—the “hot dogs and beans” section.

But we will get to that.

Glenn Thrush’s story, “President Obama’s white working-class problem,” harks back to the days of the Clinton-Obama primary, where there was much talk of Obama’s elitism and his failure to connect with blue-collar whites. The old themes are all there: he’s professorial, he talks down to folks, he’s more comfortable in friendly urban circles, and, of course, he’s black, and that doesn’t always go down so well.

Thrush hooks it all to the current election cycle with this statistic:

Twice as many non-college-educated whites (60 percent) now plan to vote for a Republican this year than a Democrat (31 percent). And approval of Obama’s handling of the economy has tanked by 20 percentage points among white Democrats since April, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll taken earlier this month.

Thrush also quotes West Virginia governor and Senate candidate Joe Manchin, as well as Missouri senator Claire MacCaskill, on their thoughts about the president’s dwindling blue-collar cred.

“Here’s the gorilla in the room,” said McCaskill. “He can roll up his sleeves and he can take off his jacket and he could not wear a tie, but it is very hard for a lot of people in working-class families to imagine him next to them at the laundromat.

“His vocabulary is beyond impressive, [but] the fact that he stays visionary sometimes slows him down” when he needs to be “granular and really nitty-gritty and saying things in a way that makes people relate to him,” McCaskill said.

Her solution: Obama needs to go on a listening tour — more like a let-them-yell-at-you tour — to establish a more visceral rapport with people’s anxieties and fears. It’s something he’s successfully done in the past.

The problem with the piece is that Thrush doesn’t make enough of the second statistic he mentions—the fact that, since April, approval of Obama’s handling of the economy has “tanked” among white Democrats. Instead, Thrush focuses on ghosts from elections past: the president can’t bowl, can’t pronounce “Yuengling,” made that God-and-guns statement. All of this contributes to public perception of the president and affects approval ratings (and, most importantly, voter choice at the ballot), true. But there is relatively scant mention of what is undoubtedly the bigger repellent for white working-class voters concerning this president today: the economy. And specifically: jobs. It’s perhaps the element of the bleak economic picture most inextricably connected to blue-collar voters.

Yet, aside from the one statistic, there is little talk of the economy as a driving factor behind Obama’s failure to hold on to white working-class voters. Only a quote from Obama himself features any mention of the unemployment rate—and even that is a mention of the unemployment rate during the 1994 midterms—and though Thrush talks to representatives from West Virginia and Missouri, he does not offer much on the standing of those two states’ economies. Their unemployment rates were 8.9 percent and 9.4 percent, respectively, as of August.

The closest Thrush comes to acknowledging the true gorilla in the room—the devastating economy, rather than an inability to bowl a strike or a spare sans gutter-bumper—is in this quote from McCaskill. And even it misses the point: Obama can set up lecterns in the backyards of mansions or trailers and it still won’t change the fact that people feel the economy is floating in the toilet, waiting for the next flush.

Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, arguably Obama’s most effective 2008 surrogate with working-class voters, said it’s a “tragedy” Obama hasn’t been able to convince blue-collar families he’s on their side, and her solution is the same as Manchin’s.

“He’s just got to get out there and hear more bad news,” McCaskill added. “That event where the woman said, ‘I’m exhausted with defending you,’ was perfect. He needs a lot more of that.”

Thrush might have then offered us the full quote from “the woman”—a middle-class African American woman who nonetheless hits the nail on the head in citing the likely cause for most demographics’ current feelings on Obama. At the CNBC Town Hall in which she complained of exhaustion, she told the president (our emphasis):

Quite frankly, I’m exhausted. Exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the man for change I voted for, and deeply disappointed with where we are right now. I’ve been told that I voted for a man who said he was going to change things in a meaningful way for the middle class. I’m one of those people and I’m waiting, sir, I’m waiting. I don’t feel it yet. While I thought it wouldn’t be a great measure, I would feel it in some small measure. I have two children in private school, and the financial recession has taken an enormous toll on my family. My husband and I joked that we thought we were well beyond the hot dogs and beans era of our lives. And quite frankly, it’s starting to knock on our door and ring through that that might be where we’re headed.

Racism, elitism, a lack of down-home-ism—all of these contribute to the current president’s woes and, in turn, those of his party. But none so much as the economy. None so much as jobs. It is bizarre that in a piece about the working-class’s move away from the president this is not the lede and bulk of the report. The hot dogs and beans are the main meal here.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.