By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 13, 2008
READING, Pa. --
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.
Obama has since reverted to the town hall format he relied on in Iowa, talking more in high school gymnasiums instead of big arenas and truncating his stump speech to allow time for questions.
On a recent visit to Fort Wayne, Ind., he gave an in-depth answer to a United Auto Workers member, explaining his plan to curb foreclosures and make it easier to organize workers. While he said he "can't promise to bring back all the manufacturing jobs" lost by Indiana, since many of the losses were caused by automation, he said he would create many new jobs with investments in infrastructure and renewable energy.
And when given a closing question that seemed perfectly suited to his trademark riff about hope and change -- "What inspired you to run for president?" -- Obama instead gave a rundown of his plans for expanding health care, taxing energy profits and closing tax loopholes for offshore companies, concluding with a promise to "wake up every single day thinking about how to make your life a little better."
"He did a nice job of speaking directly to us. That was one of my biggest concerns . . . if he knew what he was talking about with respect to" the economy, said Marianne Deitche, a high school teacher. "There are so many ways you can gloss over it, but he didn't gloss."
Anna Burger, secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union, which endorsed Obama in February, said the candidate has to spend more time talking about pocketbook issues, even if it means cutting back on his usual uplift. Voters in Pennsylvania, she said, "need to connect first, and then they can be inspired."
"At the beginning of the campaign, he was able to inspire people to lift themselves above their problems to think of a better America," Burger added. "In Pennsylvania, they want to know, 'Yes, but how are we going to do it?' "
It was this question that Obama seemed to be addressing at the San Francisco fundraiser when he said that skeptical voters in distressed areas demand more specific proposals for how their situation could be improved. Yet he also argued that such planks must be combined with a more transformational message if voters are going to overcome their lack of trust in Washington.
"So the questions you're most likely to get about me [are], 'Well, what is this guy going to do for me? What is the concrete thing?' " Obama said, in remarks recorded by the Huffington Post. "But the truth is, is that, our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there's not evidence of that in their daily lives."
David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist, sounded a similar note Saturday, saying Obama's lofty message is linked with the meat-and-potatoes issues he is increasingly focusing on. "Solving real problems in people's lives is of a piece with ending the polarization of the country," he said.
Some Obama supporters dismiss questions about his ability to connect on economic issues by pointing to his biography: He has lived in far more modest circumstances than either Clinton or McCain, and he began his career as a community organizer in a South Side Chicago neighborhood hit hard by steel plant closings. The campaign recently launched an ad highlighting that part of Obama's résumé, with the candidate standing in front of an abandoned steel plant in a black leather jacket. But his Chicago work was in a largely African American community, and whether mentions of it can translate into support among white workers remains to be seen.
Campaigning for Obama last week, Hoffa started his pitch by talking about the union's recent organizing successes and the weak economy, and only then brought up his candidate, saying Obama would make it harder for companies to ship jobs overseas and would pass legislation making it easier for unions to organize.
And, over and over, Hoffa tacked on his own version of Obama's message, minus any soaring rhetoric. "There's a saying that if you don't believe in something, then you don't believe in anything," he told drivers at a truck depot outside Reading.
Several union members responded with catcalls and tough questions, and some said afterward they were still undecided, partly because of concern over reports of the incendiary comments of Obama's longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. But others said they were coming around to Obama and starting to view him as the most clued-in on the economy.
In Reading, Dale Pszczolkowski, 55, said he does not expect any candidate to be able to prevent the closing of the factory where candy has been made for more than a century, where he has repaired machines for the past 29 years and where 350 people will lose their jobs this year. But he said he is warming up to Obama, even though he knows that Obama's target audience tends to be younger and more cosmopolitan.
"I relate to him," he said. "I have nothing against him."