Obama Courts the Working-Class Vote

Some political observers say that for Sen. Barack Obama to be elected president, he must first connect with and win over white, working-class voters. The AFL-CIO is launching a campaign to reintroduce Obama to union members in small meetings and on factory floors.

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In Washington yesterday, both presumed presidential nominees openly courted the Hispanic vote. Senators Barack Obama and John McCain gave back-to-back speeches to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. Obama is also trying to woo another demographic: white, working-class voters. He lost some of the final primaries in part because he couldn't win them over. The AFL-CIO, the nation's largest labor federation, is determined to change that. This past week the organization said it plans to spend more than 50 million dollars reacquainting Obama with the party's lunch-bucket base. NPR's Frank Langfitt has more.

FRANK LANGFITT: Karen Ackerman handles politics for the AFL-CIO. The way she sees it, the road to the White House runs through the union halls and factory floors of states like Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Ms. KAREN ACKERMAN (Political Director, AFL-CIO): We feel very strongly that Senator Obama can't be elected unless three-quarters of union voters come out to vote for him.

LANGFITT: Unions are nowhere near as powerful as they used to be. But they can still mobilize voters on Election Day. So Ackerman wants to get Obama as much face time with working people as possible.

Ms. ACKERMAN: Union members, by November 4, will have more information about where the candidates stand than any other voters. And they'll vote on their economic self-interest.

LANGFITT: Obama would seem to be solid on labor issues. For instance, he supports legislation that would make it easier to form a union. But analysts say Obama hasn't connected with some of the white working class. During the primary, even some of his critics in organized labor tried to exploit that. Tom Buffenbarger is president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. At a rally several months ago, he described what he saw as the typical Obama supporter.

Mr. TOM BUFFENBARGER (President, International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers): I've got news for all the latte-drinking, Prius-driving, Birkenstock-wearing, trust fund babies crowding in to hear him speak!

LANGFITT: And when the AFL-CIO voted to endorse Obama last week, Buffenbarger's union voted "present." In a letter to members, he said it seemed that Obama could, quote, "care less about folks like us."

Professor JEFF COWIE (Associate Professor of Labor History, Cornell University): This is an old problem.

LANGFITT: That's Jeff Cowie. He teaches labor and working class history at Cornell. He says other Democrats have struggled to seem like regular guys.

Professor COWIE: I have this memory of Sargent Shriver, McGovern's vice presidential candidate, going into a bar in Baltimore in 1972 and ordering a Chivas Regal while all the, you know, workers were drinking Schlitz.

LANGFITT: So how does Obama fight that image? Cowie says, don't try.

Professor COWIE: Keep it as real as possible. I think working folks have a really quick baloney detector. And the further you are from any sort of genuine representation of yourself, the more trouble you're going to be. So if you don't bowl, don't bowl, you know! Show me a fade-away jump shot.

LANGFITT: Another challenge Obama faces with some white voters is race. Christopher Zembauer(ph) is a retired member of the American Federation of Teachers. He lives in conservative Western Maryland where he says Obama's race will cost him votes.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER ZEMBAUER (Former Member, American Federation of Teachers): I've told people my daughter was on the Obama campaign. And they were just - they were just disgusted. They were like, how could you let your daughter do something like that? Work for a black man, trying to get a black man elected.

LANGFITT: But some union members say that this year the economy may trump other issues. Jim Asterino leads a group of firefighter locals in Greater Cleveland. He says that four years ago perhaps half his members voted for President Bush. The key issue then was family values. Now he says...

Mr. JIM ASTERINO (President, Northern Ohio Firefighters): There seems to be a different outlook with this presidential election. As far as our members are concerned, the major impact that's going to hit them now is the economy and how it affects their paycheck at home.

LANGFITT: Asterino says many of his members blame Republican policies for their economic problems. So they wonder whether Senator John McCain can offer something new that would help working people. That's a more important question for firefighters, Asterino says, than whether Obama is one of them. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Washington.

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