Obama, Clinton and the working class

In Washington state, the biggest labor union just endorsed Obama. But working-class voters are breaking for Clinton. Why?

Published February 7, 2008 8:51PM (EST)

With an eye to Saturday's Democratic caucus, the largest labor union in the state of Washington, Service Employee's International Union (SEIU), announced on Wednesday its endorsement of Barack Obama.

The SEIU had previously backed the fire-breathing John Edwards, a not-surprising selection given the former senator's aggressive positioning as the most progressive of the major Democratic candidates. But why choose Obama over Clinton? If there is one aspect of the 2008 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination that is crystal clear in the wake of Super Tuesday, it is that working-class Democrats are voting in droves for Hillary Clinton. The less income you make, the more likely you are to vote for Clinton. Unless you're African-American.

I called Adam Glickman, spokesman for SEIU Local 775, to ask him whether the Obama endorsement might be working at cross purposes to the union membership. He responded carefully -- at times he seemed almost to be reading from a template provided by the Obama organization -- but his answers were still instructive.

Why did the SEIU decide Obama was preferable to Clinton?

I think our members feel he is the best candidate to bring change to Washington; a fresh face who can inspire a broad-based movement of people to win fundamental change to the healthcare system.

But progressives have been hammering Obama's healthcare plan because it doesn't include a mandate for universal coverage. Did that distinction play a role in your decision?

The details of their proposals, at this point, are less important than the sense that Obama was the candidate with the best chance of winning in November, and has a better chance of mobilizing the public to overcome the political obstacles to fundamental change.

Exit poll data from Super Tuesday seems to indicate pretty conclusively that Clinton got the working-class vote. Do you have any thoughts on why that might be true? Is there a chance that the leadership of the SEIU might be working at cross purposes to the membership?

I think the Clinton brand obviously has a lot of positive resonance among working-class voters, and among Latino voters in particular. There's a reservoir of good will from the '90s for the Clinton name and the Clinton brand. Obama certainly has work to do to educate voters about his background and his vision for the future. But the vote among our executive board was virtually unanimous to support Obama, and as we talked to our members, and educated them about his history, his record and his background, we found that our members were attracted to that.

The Clinton brand. So, on the one hand, Hillary Clinton's popularity might be reduced to simple name recognition: Times were good in the '90s, and a Clinton was in the office. Times are bad now, let's put another Clinton in the office. But Glickman's careful toeing of the rhetoric line suggests another reason for Clinton's success. If you're looking for concrete details of exactly how Clinton plans to lend a helping hand to beleaguered working men and women, you don't have to search far. Her campaign speeches are larded with specifics -- to the point that in New Hampshire, some of the media coverage even included criticism of her speeches as boring because they contained too much detailed wonkery.

But maybe nitty-gritty details are what nervous voters crave. Obama, meanwhile, has been pushing a different product. His specialty, ever since his win in Iowa, has been magnificent, soaring, uplifting rhetoric. We end up hearing a lot more about how Obama will "bring change" than exactly what those changes will be.

This isn't because Obama doesn't have detailed policy recommendations. He does, and generally speaking, they aren't that different from Clinton's. But he's made a specific strategic choice to use his moments of greatest public exposure -- such as his Super Tuesday speech -- to emphasize the transformative nature of his campaign, rather than to reassure an anxious electorate on exactly how an Obama government is going to cheer up the working class.

Glickman and the Washington state SEIU may well be correct -- Obama might be the best candidate to deliver victory for Democrats in the general election. But he's never going to get there unless he starts giving the people who vote in Democratic primaries what they want.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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