Reagan Democrats. Lunch bucket Democrats. Hillary Democrats.
Whatever you want to call them, these white blue collar Democrats who live in places such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, West Virginia, western Virginia, western North Carolina, southern Indiana, and Missouri are the most important voting bloc in this year’s presidential election.
Many of them are socially conservative, but they are not socially conservative enough to let their moral commitments outweigh their economic concerns.
As has been well-documented, Obama has a serious problem with these voters. He could not win their support in the Democratic primaries and he cannot, by himself, win them over in the general election.
Race is a factor here. But so is Obama’s cosmopolitanism. His Columbia and Harvard education does not help him in these places. His reference to the high prices of arugula at Whole Foods does not help him either. Neither does his failure to break “50” in a game of bowling.
But what hurts him most in this regard is his rootlessness. He was born in Hawaii. He spent his early elementary school years in Indonesia. He went to college in Los Angeles (Occidental) and New York (Columbia). He went to law school in Boston. He eventually settled in Chicago. He is not a man of the heartland.
In one respect, it is unfair to criticize Obama for being rootless. He has, after all, lived in Chicago since the early 1990s. But much of his experience in the Windy City has been spent in the elite intellectual enclave surrounding the University of Chicago. And, as I have written before, Obama did not help himself by going to Berlin last month and declaring himself to be a “citizen of the world.” A self-proclaimed “world citizen” will go far in the halls of academia and perhaps even win you points in the international community, but it will not get you elected president of the United States.
So how does Obama solve this problem?
Enter Joe Biden. Not Joseph Biden. Joe Biden—the latest manifestation of the working class political hero.
Biden has roots. He was born and raised in working-class Scranton, a fact that has not been lost on an Obama campaign that desperately needs to win Pennsylvania in November. (Biden has probably passed Michael Scott of the television show The Office as the country’s most famous resident of Scranton). He moved to Delaware in 1953, graduated from the University of Delaware, and has spent thirty-five years representing the people of Delaware as a United States senator.
Biden is a lunch-bucket guy. He is a Washington insider who does not live in Washington. Biden has been commuting between D.C. and Wilmington for his entire senate career. This morning he stopped by the Amtrak station in Wilmington and said goodbye to all his friends (his “family” he calls them), shaking hands with the conductors and ticket-takers and coffee vendors—the people he sees everyday during his ninety minute commute. I don’t know what his relationship is like with these workers, but I imagine he knows them by name and can tell you something about their daily struggles.
This Democratic ticket reflects some of the deepest contradictions and paradoxes in American life. At the head of the ticket is a man who represents the restlessness and mobility of Americans. Obama reflects the spirit of the immigrants who left home for a better life. He reflects the universal ideas of the Founding Fathers that transcended particular nations and places. He reflects the nineteenth-century men and women, never satisfied in one place, who settled this vast continent.
Biden, on the other hand, represents the populism that has long defended the plight of the common worker and farmer. He has been loyal through the years to a particular people, place, and nation. He is the guy who stayed at home to serve the people of Delaware, his people.
The need to have someone like Biden on the ticket testifies to the fact that not everyone in the United States is the same. Yes, America is grounded on universal ideas like liberty, freedom, tolerance, etc…. But America is more than an idea. In the face of globalization, national media outlets, and mass consumer capitalism, the United States is still a nation made up of places and regions with different traditions, cultures, and memories.
I don’t know if Biden will appeal to the Hillary Democrats in Ohio and Pennsylvania or the Reagan Democrats in West Virginia and rural Missouri. I don’t know if he will be able to get past the plagiarism scandal or the various rhetorical gaffes he has committed through the years. But Obama could not have picked a better running mate. Biden’s long connection to a specific people in a specific place is the perfect balance to Obama’s cosmopolitanism. His biography will make sense to these white working class voters in a way that Obama’s biography will not.