Manchin isn’t alone among West Virginia Democrats attempting to separate themselves from the president. The governor, Earl Ray Tomblin, and a prominent congressman, Nick J. Rahall II — both facing reelection challenges — have also declined to publicly endorse Obama.
But the spurning of the president by the 65-year-old Manchin, a popular former governor and nowadays his state’s chief political luminary, stands out — in part because of Manchin’s intense criticism of the man whom he regularly and affectionately called “Barack” during the 2008 campaign. A federal “war on coal” has harmed West Virginia and united Democratic dissenters against the Obama administration, Manchin declared in an interview last week, observing of the president’s electoral fate: “I think he knows he’s not going to do well in our state. . . . And you know what? It’s personal. When people lose their jobs, they look at you and ask, ‘So, what am I to do?’ And they blame him.”
Four years ago, before the blaming started, Manchin praised Obama as a worthy partner for coal states, declaring in a CNBC interview, “That’s why it’s so imperative that Barack becomes the next president.” Now Manchin talks about how the Obama administration doesn’t reach out to him for discussions on coal issues, and how the president has never called him.
Manchin’s supporters point out that elective politics is chiefly about personal survival, with loyalty to another politician always a fluid and fragile thing. Obama, who is thought to be trailing Republican Mitt Romney by more than 20 percentage points in West Virginia, is about as popular here as wind turbines. In 2008, John McCain beat him by 13 points in the state. During this year’s West Virginia Democratic primary, a Texas prison inmate received about 41 percent against Obama in a protest vote, with Manchin carefully committing to no one. West Virginia Democratic leaders urging him to support Obama have had their entreaties rebuffed.
Meanwhile, Manchin is seeking to tweak a bit of history. When reminded that he endorsed Obama in 2008 after the eventual president secured the Democratic nomination, he is quick to disagree and clarify, disliking the word “endorsed.” “Well, supported him,” he says.
Manchin isn’t the first senator to consider not supporting his party’s nominee. In 2004, for instance, then-Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee (R-R.I.) announced that he wasn’t planning to vote for President George W. Bush, while Zell Miller (Ga.) did not vote for fellow senator John F. Kerry (Mass.), the Democratic presidential nominee.
In West Virginia, Manchin has a comfortable lead in his race against Republican John Raese. Raese lost to Manchin by about 10 points in a 2010 special election, in which the Democrat captured the seat previously held by the state’s late legend Robert C. Byrd. Manchin, who had trailed through much of the campaign, saw his standing soar after running a TV ad in which he aimed a rifle and viewers saw a bullet slicing through a mock-up of an Obama-favored cap-and-trade bill to regulate carbon emissions.