How much can John Edwards help Barack Obama?

The Democratic front-runner needs his former rival's working-class populist fire, not just his endorsement. Plus: The Elizabeth watch continues.

By Joan Walsh
May 17, 2008 2:42PM (UTC)
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Can John Edwards help Barack Obama win over white, working-class Democrats? That's what I talked about this week on my Current video blog (this post will continue below the video).

I think Obama's fierce rapid response to President Bush's despicable appeasement slur was probably, in the long run, more important to his candidacy than the Edwards endorsement. (And I was happy to hear Clinton denounce Bush on his smear as well.) But getting his former rival's support has already paid practical dividends for Obama: On Thursday he was endorsed by the United Steelworkers Union (Obama had worked for the union as an organizer early in his career) as well as seven Edwards convention delegates and four superdelegates, according to the Associated Press.


But I think Obama needs more than Edwards' endorsement to make inroads with white, working-class Clinton supporters; he needs to borrow some of his stump speech, and some of his fire. When Edwards left the race in January, one candidate seemed to grab a lot of his rhetoric, and that was Clinton. She starting talking about a poverty czar, she pressed her healthcare and mortgage-crisis plans in more vivid detail; she reinvented herself as a working class hero. Obama is a much better speaker, but his pitch tends to be more ethereal, about change and process and Washington. He needs more detail, and more passion, about the problems of the voters persistently backing Clinton. (One other fact worth noting: Clinton beat Edwards among working-class whites back when he was still in the race, according to exit-poll analysis by

Kentucky could provide an early test of Obama's ability to cut into Clinton's margin with those voters, and of whether Edwards helped, although Clinton is still expected to win Kentucky handily. I'm still wondering what's going on with Elizabeth Edwards, who didn't endorse Obama and who is said to be partial to Clinton because she vastly prefers Clinton's more inclusive health plan. I was fascinated to read that Clinton hadn't talked to John Edwards about his endorsement, but she had talked to Elizabeth; no word on what they said.

I was the reporter who heard Elizabeth slam Hillary Clinton fairly hard this summer and argue that her husband was a better candidate for women than Clinton was (a "scoop" that was mangled by Matt Drudge), I've been curious to watch her apparent turnaround on Clinton. (If you click through to the interview, you'll also see how she echoed the California Supreme Court's ruling about gay marriage and civil unions, 10 months before the ruling.) I attribute it to her fierce passion about the healthcare issue, about which Obama has been lamentably cautious politically. I doubt even an Elizabeth Edwards endorsement could change the math that almost certainly dooms Clinton's candidacy, but it would be a nice political consolation prize for having the most progressive health plan.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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