The Plank

In Michigan, Obama Goes Lunchpail

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TROY, Michigan--With the last two contests less than 24 hours away and Hillary Clinton sending signals that she might finally be ending her candidacy, most of the focus on Barack Obama's visit here yesterday was on how it would affect the primary race.

Would Obama collect any of those final superdelegates he needed to clinch the nomination? (He did, garnering the support of Brenda Lawrence, mayor of nearby Southfield.) Would Obama say anything about Clinton directly? (He did, opening his speech with a gracious tribute to her as an "oustanding public servant" who ran "an outstanding race"). Would Obama mention the controversy over Michigan's disputed primary? (He didn't.)

But the event was also intriguing as a view into Obama's prospects for the general election. Despite Michigan's economic struggles and its trend towards Democrats in recent years, the latest polls have shown John McCain winning, albeit narrowly. One reason for this is Obama's now-familiar difficulty with white blue-collar workers--and the atmospherics yesterday spoke volumes about just how much ground Obama has to make up.

The venue for the event was a gym at Troy High School, squat in the middle of
Oakland County--a posh Detroit suburb that, as one of the opening speakers reminded the
audience, is among the very wealthiest in America. Obama drew a large, enthusiastic crowd of more than 1,000 people and, according to organizers, the required tickets for the event had been snapped up from party headquarters in less than an hour. But the crowd largely represented Obama's traditional coalition of young people, the well-educated, and African-Americans. If you've ever been to a Democratic campaign event in the Detroit area,
then you're used to seeing lots of union hats and t-shirts. But
scanning over the crowd of more than 1,000 people, I spotted only two
such shirts--one from a Teamster and one from a member of UNITE (the
textiles union), whom organizers had sat directly behind Obama on
stage.

Still, ultimately it wasn't the audience inside the gym that mattered. It was the rest of Michigan's voters, who'd read about or see the event in local media. And Obama focused heavily on the economy to reach them. He gave a strongly populist speech touting his proposals for reforming the tax code, investing in public works, and making trade agreements tougher. Health care was another big focus. During the question-and-answer session, Obama went out of his way to explain his health care plan--in full detail--a second time.

Of course, those of us who follow politics have heard Obama say things like this dozens of times before. But Michigan hasn't. This was only his third campaign trip to the state. (Previously, he'd avoided Michigan to honor the DNC's boycott of the un-sanctioned primary.) And if Obama isn't exactly anonymous here, he's not exactly a known quantity, either--in part because the big three of the state's Democratic establishment (Governor Jennifer Granholm, Senator Carl Levin, and Senator Debbie Stabenow) have all been supporting Clinton.

And while I know I'm not the first person to say this--my colleague Chris Orr, among others, has made this point repeatedly--Obama's populism is a great deal more persuasive when the alternative is McCain rather than Clinton, who can match Obama policy proposal for policy proposal and has her own impressive record on the issues to tout. That's one reason to be optimsitic about Obama's prospects among these voters, even outside of Michigan.

Indeed, right after the event I spoke with a woman named Doreen Agnew. Agnew lost her job of nearly 30 years when her former employer, the Farmer Jack grocery chain, closed down its Michigan operations last year. With her husband's unemployment benefits now exhausted, the couple is living on hers while she studies to get certified as a computer technician. The money is enough to live on, she says, except now she can't afford to pay for health insurance. So she's uninsured--and going without care for her chronic circulatory problems.

It was Agnew who introduced Obama in Troy. But, she admitted, she was not originally in his corner. Agnew grew up in Michigan, the daughter of a General Motors employee. And, like a lot of people she knows, she said, she was torn between him and Clinton, whom she knew better and whose record she'd come to respect. But Obama won her over. And, with the primary race effectively over, she said she expected her friends and neighbors to support him without hesitation. "It was always going to be Clinton or Obama--not McCain."

Edit: Corrected typo about Agnew; she was not an early Obama supporter. 

--Jonathan Cohn 

 

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