On Economy, Obama Blends His Messages

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is demanding that company shareholders have a say in how much executives get paid as he pushes his populist message. Video by AP
By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 13, 2008


James P. Hoffa stood outside the brick Hershey candy factory here one day last week and tried to sell Sen. Barack Obama to a cluster of Teamsters who are losing their jobs because the company is going to start making the York peppermint pattie in Mexico.

Obama would "change all the bad things" about the North American Free Trade Agreement, said Hoffa, the Teamsters union president, brandishing a peppermint pattie for emphasis. "I don't know if we're here in time for this [factory]. . . . Everybody got sold this [expletive] about free trade. But we've got to start somewhere. So let's vote for Barack Obama. Let's not have any more victims."

Then, as if just remembering Obama's signature message, Hoffa added: "You can't give up. There's got to be hope. We've got to have hope in the system."

As Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton head into next Tuesday's Democratic primary in Pennsylvania, the reeling economy is looming as a major focus of the upcoming general election contest against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a development that opinion polls suggest will play strongly to the Democrats' benefit. But the focus on the economy also presents a challenge for Obama and his labor allies.

After losing the Ohio primary to Clinton (N.Y.) last month, in part because of the difficulty he had connecting with Rust Belt voters worried about their jobs, Obama (Ill.) has been talking in greater detail about what he would do to repair the economy and contrasting that with McCain's proposals. But this has sometimes come at the expense of Obama's more abstract and inspiring message about rising above partisan pettiness to unite the country, the central call of his campaign.

At the same time, McCain and Clinton have begun a combined assault on Obama's working-class outreach, pouncing on his remarks at a recent San Francisco fundraiser -- about how many small-town Americans have grown "bitter" about their economic situation -- as evidence of elitism and lack of empathy for average Americans.

The mixed reception Hoffa got during his tour through Pennsylvania last week suggests that party and union surrogates are still learning how to yoke Obama's larger themes of reconciliation and uplift to the more concrete pocketbook issues that Democrats traditionally emphasize. In Obama, they have someone whose background as an African American is unique among candidates and whose strengths and weaknesses are different than those of the conventional Democrats they have supported in the past.

Riding through Pennsylvania in a caravan of three tractor-trailers, occasionally shouting "Obama!" to people he passed, Hoffa acknowledged the challenge. But he expressed confidence in his ability to turn out many of the union's 83,000 members in the state.

Hoffa, son of legendary Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa, who disappeared in 1975, said that since the 1.4 million-member union's February endorsement, he has encountered little resistance to Obama on racial grounds, adding that he sees Obama as the Tiger Woods of politics. As "unusual" as Obama is, Hoffa said, he offers a huge opportunity because of his ability to draw millions of new voters and thousands of new donors.

"The Democratic Party has to adjust to it," said Hoffa, 66. "You can't change what he is. . . . He's a new phenomenon, and we have to basically say: We have a star and we have to play to a star like this. It's like having a great running back, and you change the offense so you can maximize him."

The troubles facing average Americans had been a staple of Obama's stump speech for months, but his discussion of health-care costs and flat wages had been cast in the broader framework of his call for a new kind of politics that puts candor and results over gamesmanship, a message that resonated most with higher-income voters. And his attempts to project empathy by describing the plight of voters he met often came across as tentative, lacking the punch that Bill Clinton, for one, could summon.

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