05/23/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama's Key To The Blue Collar Vote

The Saturday before the North Carolina primary, Joe Klein of Time and I separately spent a long time talking to Tammy, an army veteran and mother of four standing next to the press rail before the Rotary Centennial Pavilion in Gastonia. Senator Clinton was, unusually for her, very late to her rally (some snafu with air traffic control not recognizing Gov. Easley-- a harbinger of just how much his stumping for Clinton was going to count in the end). What Joe and Tammy discussed I don't know, but she and I, along with her second daughter Casey, got into the subject of education. I had asked Tammy if she was from around Gastonia originally, and the answer was no-- Niagara Falls.

"You have to understand," Tammy says, "the only way out of Niagara for people like me is the military. I've got college, too-- but the education wasn't much good. I'd've given anything for the schools they [Clinton and Obama] went to." Tammy regards me fiercely. An intelligent woman, she knows what she has missed. And now her sense of loss is focused on her gifted daughter Casey, whose middle school, a magnet school for science and math, is soon to close. As it is, Tammy says, because of No Child Left Behind, Casey's teachers teach to the dumbest kids in the class. Tammy is aggrieved. From what I've heard on the campaign trail, people are concerned not nearly so much about the loss of jobs, or the war in Iraq, or the price of gas, as they are about their children's education. Tammy wants opportunities like Wellesley, Columbia, Harvard and Yale for her daughter, but already those colleges are receding from seventh-grade Casey into the far distance.

After listening to Clinton speak on her education plan (universal pre-K, scrapping NCLB, better support and salaries for teachers, college tax credits and government-backed low-interest student loans), Tammy decided to give Hillary her vote. I point out that Senator Obama is making much the same proposals--and if anything, his education plan is more ambitious. But Tammy has not had a chance to hear Senator Obama. Nor have many of the other concerned parents in lower-middle-class neighborhoods, small towns and outlying commuter hamlets like Gastonia across the country.

If Barack Obama can talk about education to enough Tammies and Caseys, he will have his blue collar vote. In one way, it's as simple as merely showing up in Gastonia. Really he needs to follow the Bill Clinton itineraries--even though this may entail some campaign swallowing of pride--and hold front porch rallies across the battleground states. The Obama Campaign should adopt the Clinton modus operandi of last-minute announcements of town/neighborhood visits so that passionate loyalists don't show up in numbers that overwhelm the locals. Senator Obama is going to need his dedicated base in order to govern; but now he needs them to keep back so that he can reach out to other Americans.

Hillary and Bill Clinton have known where to find these reluctant Democrats. They also know who these folks are better and closer than Obama does. At most every rally and meeting for the last three months, for example, Senator Clinton early on has asked, "What interest rate are you paying on your student loans?" Always hands rise for twenty, twenty-three, twenty-five, even thirty percent. It's a misperception that less materially well-off--not to mention rural--white Americans don't have higher education, if not for themselves, then for their children. Somebody in the family has gone to college, taken some courses. It's just that they've had to pay more (relatively speaking) and to work harder for less-- in education, as elsewhere. Knowing this, Hillary Clinton has zeroed straight in on these folks' educational hardships and their desires that their children and grandchildren have better.

Returning from another Clinton North Carolina town hall meeting, I turn on the TV to find the Huff Post's own Hilary Rosen discussing the Democratic race on a cable news show. Rosen is surprised that Senator Clinton has gotten 45 percent of the youth vote in Pennsylvania. "Tell me what your problems are" is the Hillary Clinton approach, Rosen says. "But young people have no problems!" Rosen adds with a laugh. If I hadn't been out on the campaign trail, likely I would think the same. In Fayetteville that afternoon, however, Senator Clinton had taken the most dispiriting and heart-breaking questions from twenty-somethings that I've witnessed in many months. These were military, husbands and wives of military, struggling with the reality that veterans' benefits no longer cover or even begin to cover the cost of a college education. These were young women juggling children and college while worrying about husbands on third tours of duty. These were young vets who, as is increasingly being reported in the North Carolina press, aren't getting the psychiatric and logistical support they need in order to make it in college.

Not all college students are the jaunty and saucy but idealistic set Barack Obama has attracted from day one. If Senator Obama can speak to the rest, not only the parents like Tammy or the Fayetteville veterans, but also people like the young woman at his own rally in Beaumont, Texas, who asked Obama what could be done for students like her sister-- a college drop-out who discovered she didn't have the preparation she needed to stay there-- then he has an opportunity to reach their hearts and minds. But doing that requires getting to know people and sitting with them for a spell.

A universal rule of human nature is that desire is inversely proportional to need. Therefore, Americans who have the most always need more while those who have less ask for less. Michelle Obama perfectly understands this, for in her speeches she often uses her father's life as an example of the fact that "folks don't want all that much." The Clintons understand this, and in their small-town stump speeches they try--against the grain of their far-ranging policy interests--to get into only a few issues for more than a sentence. Therefore, speaking to small-town America on the subject of education alone-- if he understands where people are coming from on that subject-- would garner Senator Obama votes.

This is the mistake--addressing too many issues--that Obama made with the various Hispanic populations in Texas. Rhetorically, the way to look people in the eye that conveys "I understand you" is to focus remarks. Spanish-speaking Texans are not a monolithic group. Families whose Tejano roots pre-date the Civil War don't share the outlook of Central American immigrants. Not all Hispanics are Catholics; many now are charismatics or Protestant evangelicals. But Hispanic Texans together are bewildered that their children don't do better in school. Like all Americans, they want a better life for the next generation, and therefore it is education, and not health care or immigration or jobs, that is their number one concern.

Tuesday in a press conference call, David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager, said that education is "the key to our country's future." Likely his comment was a graceful tribute to the achievements of former Colorado governor Roy Romer, whose endorsement of Senator Obama was the purported subject of the call. But Plouffe's remark, if incidental to the occasion, is true. Just as I'm writing this, John Edwards is endorsing Barack Obama. Minutes ago, Edwards sent out a fundraising email targeted at helping Greene County, North Carolina, send its high school students to college. At this point in time, the solicitation for young people in Greene County is much more important than the endorsement. I think even David Plouffe would agree.