Obama Woos the Rust Belt: For All the Talk of Obama's "New Politics", the Presidency Might Well Be Determined by Trade Union Members in Failing Industrial Cities

By MacGillis, Alec | New Statesman (1996), October 13, 2008 | Go to article overview

Obama Woos the Rust Belt: For All the Talk of Obama's "New Politics", the Presidency Might Well Be Determined by Trade Union Members in Failing Industrial Cities


MacGillis, Alec, New Statesman (1996)


Sarah Palin skipped over the low expectations set for her debate with Joe Biden in St Louis, brazening her way through with a firm grip on her talking points, a few winks, and a pitch so folksy--"doggone it", "you betcha"-that even George W Bush, the awshucks standard-setter, would have sounded like Henry James beside her.

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But the redemption of John McCain's running mate from Alaska was undercut by news that same day from another northern state with hunters and hockey moms: the McCain campaign was pulling out of Michigan, the second-largest of the states carried by the Democrats in 2004 that McCain had been hoping to pick off. For him to decide, with a month to go, that his money was better spent in states that were threatening to defect to Barack Obama, such as Florida and Virginia, represented a distinct tactical shift.

The move's real jolt, though, lay in its broader implication. All campaign, Obama had laboured under the shadow of the great but tottering American Rust Belt. For all his talk of expanding the electoral map into the South and West, many Democrats worried he would leave a gaping hole in the middle, in Pennsylvania and Michigan, crucial elements of the party's coalition, and Ohio, which it so coveted. Hillary Clinton had handily won the primaries in Pennsylvania and Ohio, prompting speculation that the post-industrial swath between Allentown and Toledo was resistant to the silken, half-Kenyan senator.

Particularly troubling was Michigan, where "Reagan Democrats" had first entered the political taxonomy, in the working-class suburb of Macomb County. Obama had not campaigned in the state's primary because its timing had violated party rules, and he had throughout the race held up as proof of his willingness to tell hard truths a speech he gave to car workers in Detroit demanding that they increase fuel efficiency, a sore subject in a state whose Ford and Chevy plants have been badly hurt by the Prius and its ilk. Many in Michigan hold the state's Democratic governor partly to blame for its plight-unemployment is the highest in the country. And a sex scandal involving the young black former mayor of Detroit has not helped race relations in a state that has experienced worse than usual white flight--Detroit's population is more than 80 per cent African American.

Sure enough, throughout the summer, Obama struggled to pull ahead in the three big states, even as he showed surprising strength in more white-collar Republican strongholds such as Virginia and Colorado. An awful irony loomed for Democrats-how was it that, in a year when the poor economy had put them in such prime position, Obama might lose the very states that had fared worst under Bush? …

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