I'll never forget the day Jesse Jackson swung through my hometown on his 1988 presidential bid. The whole city turned out to hear him speak at the soon-to-be shuttered Motors plant. Jackson won the hearts of autoworkers and their families -- including plenty of bigoted Archie Bunker types, dittoheads-to-be -- that day.
My grandmother, not a bigot but very reserved and not usually given to sullying herself with the dirty business of politics, stood at the rope line and shook his hand. I don't think she washed that hand for days. He was a man for the moment -- one of a precious few (Bruce Springsteen and Michael Moore also come to mind) who were speaking to our concerns as globalization and the outsourcing of American manufacturing lowered the boom on a way of life for tens of millions.
Well, of course, there's still millions of those jobs out there in America -- good union factory jobs that pay a living wage -- but there are far fewer than when I was growing up, and their disappearance has ransacked our cities, small and large alike, plunging many families into poverty and many more into a marginal, hand-to-mouth, paycheck-to-paycheck Wal-Mart existence that can be upended at any moment by a medical crisis or some other financial hiccup that middle class professionals like myself could sweat out or shrug off like a cold.
John and Elizabeth Edwards spoke to me, right at me, to the values, anxieties and aspirations that molded my politics in the cauldron of my '80s blue collar Midwestern youth. And yet, in recent days, despite his worrisome habit of mouthing rightwing memes, I found myself listing towards Obama. Because the other major formative influence on my politics was the betrayal of the working class by the Clintons as they sought the approval of the neoliberal elites, and I won't be fooled twice. I can find much to admire in Hillary Clinton, and I pine for a strong woman president, but I'll never forgive her and her husband for their sneering, condescending sell-out of working people, sold to us with populist blandishments, bullshit talk of retraining and bright, futuristic tomorrows that never came.
I read somewhere today that Hillary Clinton was the wine and cheese candidate, which, however perversely, is untrue. Somehow, she's the bread-and-butter, kitchen table candidate, pulling in the blue-collar votes while Obama, despite his own experience of hardship and his work as a community organizer in working class neighborhoods of Chicago, is the "aspirational" candidate, with appeal to youth and the upper-middle-class. He comes off far more Cambridge than Chicago. His message is pitched, in large part, to soothe the dumb shit opinion leaders of Washington and Wall Street. And that's fine, insofar as it gets him fawning coverage and large donors. But right now, he needs those blue-collar votes to get past Super Tuesday. They're not the constituency they once were -- hence Edwards' third-runner-up status -- but they're the key to the nomination.
JedReport says Obama needs more "pickup truck" in his persona. I'm not sure about that. For my vote, or at least that of the folks back home, he needs to give voice to the economic insecurity that's wracking the nation, promise to hold the corporate malefactors accountable and point to a way out. Perhaps more importantly, he needs to cut the mealymouthed post-partisan rhetoric and tie all the above up in a rebuke to Republicanism. Inspirational leadership is nice and all, but people are fearful for the future -- and very, very angry. Muzak might play well on college campuses and in the nicer suburbs, where people are insulated from the immediate effects of Iraq and the mortgage/credit crisis, but it doesn't speak to that anger and anxiety.
Obama doesn't need to put on any phony jus' folks BS to talk to working people -- he just needs to talk to them.