DENVER — Barack Obama has the problem from hell.
The very voters he needs to win this election, the white working class that has been descending into postindustrial postprosperity for a couple of decades and the past eight years in particular, are angry. American finance and corporations have abandoned them for cheaper climes, and they blame the elites of both parties for their woes. Obama's challenge is to become a tribune for some of that anger without looking like an angry black man.
One of the keenest students of these all-important swing voters is Stan Greenberg, Bill Clinton's pollster in 1992 and the acknowledged authority on Michigan's Macomb County, a white working-class suburb of Detroit. In the mid '80s, Greenberg began polling and doing focus groups in Macomb, a bastion of autoworkers that had delivered huge majorities for John Kennedy in 1960 — and for Ronald Reagan in 1984. He found that Macomb residents believed the Democratic Party was interested in helping only African-Americans, including their neighbors in Detroit, whom they regarded with fear and loathing. Greenberg helped Clinton reorient the Democratic message to be more class-based, a key element in Clinton's '92 victory.
With Barack Obama heading the Democratic ticket and plainly having trouble with working-class whites, Greenberg returned to Macomb in July for a new generation of polling and focus groups. Macomb's memories of Detroit's racial convulsions in the '60s and '70s have faded somewhat, he found, but race is still a key hurdle for many residents. Their economic anxiety has skyrocketed — understandably enough, with the auto industry in shambles and not much coming along to take its place. Indeed, their No. 1 concern in Greenberg's survey (undertaken for the Democracy Corps) is the offshoring of jobs, with rising gas, food and health care costs running a close second. Their ideal presidential candidate, Greenberg says, would be an "outsider, middle-class" senator who expresses their anger at their betrayal by America's economic and political elites.
And he wouldn't be black, either.
In Greenberg's survey of Macomb, Obama is trailing John McCain by 7 percentage points, which in fact means that he's doing better at this point of the campaign than John Kerry and Al Gore were doing four and eight years ago. But perhaps the most striking finding is the high level of support for Ralph Nader, who plainly offers some Macombers — at least, before they have to actually vote — an outlet for their anger, and a third way between McCain's standard-issue Republicanism and Obama's blackness. Eight percent of all Macomb voters surveyed back Nader, which includes 11 percent of Macomb's working-class Democrats and 12 percent of its white union members. Only 47 percent of Macomb's white union members back Obama.
The union leaders gathered here are painfully aware of the challenge they face in persuading their white members to vote for Obama. To that end, the leaders of all the major unions — those from the AFL-CIO and its breakaway rival federation, Change to Win — came together at a rally at the Denver Convention Center on Sunday to unveil the most massive and sophisticated electoral campaign that labor has ever waged. In aggregate, it looks as though the unions will spend $300-million to $400-million by November, with the lion's share of their focus on persuading white members to vote for Obama out of their own economic interest.
The unions will rely heavily on one-on-one meetings that shop stewards and local leaders hold with their members. "We'll have to fight with our own members on this," public employee union president Jerry McEntee, who also chairs the AFL-CIO's political committee, said at Sunday's rally. "We've got to say to our Appalachian members who say they can't vote for him, he's black — we gotta tell them that's (expletive)!"
Clearly, that's not quite the message we'll hear from Obama himself. But in his acceptance speech tonight, Obama will have to figure out a way to be Greenberg's outsider, middle-class senator; to show that he is in touch with workers' indignation at being abandoned — without coming off as too indignant himself. In Greenberg's polling, Macomb voters made clear that they didn't equate Obama with Jesse Jackson. But Greenberg's focus groups found a good deal of wariness as to whether Obama would be a president for all Americans, or just blacks and college kids.
This is hardly Obama's only challenge, but it's a crucial one. He surely needs to talk about his work organizing on behalf of displaced steelworkers in Chicago. And in case the depth of Obama's challenge isn't clear yet, Greenberg has one more factoid to vex Democrats: The second choice of the Nader voters in his survey is McCain. Something for Barack Obama to think about as he prepares to address the nation.
Harold Meyerson is editor at large of American Prospect and the L.A. Weekly.