To use a familiar phrase, Barack Obama needs Tom Buffenbarger to get fired up and ready to go. The fact that he isn't should worry voters eager to see the Democrats to win in November.
I ran into Buffenbarger in a hotel lobby, as I was moving around town earlier today, trying to get a sense of things. He is precisely what you would think a Tom Buffenbarger would be: a thickly built, balding, blunt-speaking guy with a firm handshake and a sports coat you'd never see in the pages of GQ magazine. His roots and job are Buffenbargeresque: the blue-collar precincts of Cincinnati; the presidency of the Machinists Union.
Buffenbarger was a Hillary Clinton guy. Now he is an Obama guy. But he is worried--worried that the Obama-Biden campaign still doesn't get it about the voters he represents and the part of the country he comes from. "I'm not sure they have anyone on the inside of that campaign who really knows my voters," he told me.
Besides inside advice, the Obama campaign, in the view of many here, hasn't been as diligent as they should be in wooing and winning Clinton delegates. Some Obama supporters in states Obama won--Gov. Tim Kaine of Virginia, to cite one example--have worked hard on their own to reel in their local Clintonites. But neither Obama nor his top lieutenants have reached much beyond the Clinton donor base to reach out directly to individual delegates.
These two trends--blue-collar worries, and reluctant Clinton supporters who feel they are being ignored--cross in a particular geographical area: the Great Lakes states of Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. It's a cliché of the campaign but nevertheless true: this election battle with John McCain will be won or lost in those places, where less educated, Roman Catholic blue-collar workers still form the backbone of the traditional Democratic Party.
Said another union official, who did not want to be quoted: "The fact that we are fighting tooth and nail in Pennsylvania--when we shouldn't have to be, given George Bush's record--tells you everything you need to know about this election."
What does Obama need to do and say?
"He needs to challenge America again," Buffenbarger told me. "He needs to say that we are going to rebuild the middle class and renew our technological base." Obama can't merely promise to repeat the policies of Bill Clinton, he said. The former president was too willing to sign trade deals, he said, and too willing to sometimes let Wall Street get its way.
There was a fair amount of talk among insiders that Obama's economic plans and language remain vague--an argument summarized in The New York Times Magazine by influential reporter David Leonhardt. "Just read that article and you will see what the problem is they have to solve."
In another hotel lobby I ran into another Clinton person--a higher-up who had gotten on board, but who remained skeptical of Obama's ability to make the sale. "The best thing we have going for us is George Bush," said this person, who was busy raising money to pay off Hillary's debt and did not wanted to be quoted by name. "That's how we win: Bush equals McCain. That's going to have be the way we win, the only way we win, this election."