Watch out, Obama

In his union office in the Cleveland suburbs, up a narrow flight of stairs, Frank Szabo is walking his visitors through a family history so blue-collar it sounds almost like a parody of the working class.

One side hailed from the coal country in Pennsylvania. The other toiled in the steel mills. His great-grandfather, he says, died in a mining accident at the turn of the century, at a time when he had been agitating about work safety. “There was a one-person mining accident,” Szabo says, dryly.

Szabo breaks the family mould in only one significant way. Like many members of the union he leads, the Association of Cleveland Fire Fighters, Local 93, he increasingly votes Republican in presidential elections.

The white working class deserting the Democrats to vote Republican is a trend that has accelerated under Barack Obama. In November this year, the “angry white man” factor that reached a peak in the 2010 congressional midterm elections could push Obama out after only one term in office.

“The Republicans have become the party of the white working class,” says Ruy Teixeira, of the Center for America Progress, a liberal think-tank. He adds that conservatives have tapped into anger against Washington by portraying the government as a “tax-collecting and money-wasting machine”.

The US electorate has long been sliced and diced into sub-categories which can tip the balance in presidential polls. Soccer moms ruled for a while. The elderly have always had clout. The rising number of Hispanics has made them the most heavily courted new block of voters in the 21st century.

But the group that the White House and the Republicans are currently watching most closely are the blue-collar workers they call “white men without college degrees”. Ohio, which has gone with the winner of every presidential election since 1964, and where 54 per cent of eligible voters are working-class whites, is ground zero for both parties in 2012.

Many of these voters are angry at the government because it taxes some people too much and others too little; or because it provides too much welfare to some groups and not enough to others. Some were infuriated because the government bailed out the banks; others because it didn’t bail out their own industry. Everyone has a reason to be angry, including Frank Szabo.

Sitting in a room dominated by the union’s banner (motto: “In All Things Unity”), he tells me how Catholic priests around the country recently railed against Obama’s decision (since amended) to make hospitals and charities affiliated with religions include contraception in their staff’s health insurance. “Our members are distinctly pro-Catholic,” he says. “The abortion issue is very volatile. Social issues, like guns, are very emotional for a lot of people, too.”

His voice gradually stiffening, he goes on to recount how he recently filled in the voluminous application forms for government support for his daughter’s $20,000-a-year college fees. He was furious when he was knocked back. “I have never asked for welfare. I have never asked for anything. But at least a quarter of my wife’s and my take-home pay is going to go to these fees,” he says. “If I don’t get this support, then who the heck does?”

By now he is banging on the table for emphasis as he outlines his view on how government support is doled out in Washington. “If I think someone is big on vetoing programmes, then I am going to vote for them, because it sure isn’t coming back to me. I am looking at my bottom line, in terms of my dollars.”

If Frank Szabo is angry about the government, it is hard to know how to describe Terry Minadeo. “I have to warn you,” he says, as he sits down with a smile in a Cleveland Caribou coffee shop, “my wife calls me a nasty guy.” A longtime salesman of medical equipment, the 57-year-old comes from a blue-collar family. When he was born, “Democrat” could have been reliably stamped on his forehead, so rusted-on were his parents’ political loyalties. Now, when he gets together with his relatives, they complain about how he has become a Republican.

Terry Minadeo, salesman: ‘ I have to warn you, my wife calls me a nasty guy’

“It seems that Democrats continually come up with programmes to try to feed and clothe the poor,” he says. “We are giving free phones away now. There is this advertisement on television with an elderly black lady, who says, ‘Call this number and get your free phone today.’” (The programmes for free phones for the needy and infirm are paid for from a levy on telecoms providers.)

Much of Minadeo’s income comes from government through Medicare and Medicaid, which fund healthcare for the elderly and the poor – his main client base. But he flies into a rage at pressure from hospitals to provide equipment for patients who can’t afford it.

He says his dislike of Obama is only a “little bit” to do with race, although he does his best to make it sound otherwise. He has never liked the president because he thinks he has always been “slanted towards foreigners”. “I think he would like everyone to wear a turban. I will not. I will go and get my gun.”

Richard Nixon first started peeling the white working class away from the Democrats by feeding the backlash against the political and sexual revolutions of the 1960s with a platform built on “guns, gays and God”. Ronald Reagan did the same, creating a new class of voters called “Reagan Democrats”. George W. Bush successfully mined a similar vein to beat Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004, portraying both men as elite and out of touch.

After a slight swing back to the Democrats in 2006 and 2008, conservative inroads into the white working class accelerated in the opening years of Obama’s term. In the 2010 mid-term elections, 63 per cent of white working-class voters backed the Republicans and only 33 per cent the Democrats. This was the “highest in the history of modern polling”, according to the National Journal, which compiled the figures.

“The ongoing economic crisis only appears to have deepened America’s conservative drift,” says Richard Florida, director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto. “It is a trend which is most pronounced in its least well-off, least educated, most blue-collar, most economically hard-hit states.”

The landscape around Cleveland in north-east Ohio is full of places with virile, optimistic names that once matched the area’s industrial prowess. Leave the city and you pass Steelyard Drive and Strongsville, before heading on to Youngstown and Lordstown. The local publications also have an Old Testament flavour to them. Youngstown’s newspaper is called The Vindicator. The in-house publication of one of the United Auto Workers (UAW) locals in Cleveland is The Enlightener.

It is an area with broad shoulders but sagging muscles, something vividly on display as we turn the corner to Cleveland’s sprawling Ford factory. What follows is like a battle scene from a Transformers movie. One of dozens of excavators has extended its claws into the steel skeleton of the plant’s foundry. The metallic machine seems to crouch and size it up before violently shaking the structure until it begins to sag and fall. Trucks with water cannons rush in to hose down the rusty billowing smoke to stop asbestos pouring out. Slowly, amid the twisted metal, the dust settles.

For first-time visitors, this is a moment of macabre excitement. For Mike Gammella, the head of the local branch of the UAW, it is just another scene in the slow-motion unravelling of the area’s industrial history. His once-thriving union presided over a once-thriving plant. From the vantage point of his office, he has watched as both have shrunk.

Mike Gammella, branch union leader: ‘ My biggest fear is that, one day, I am going to walk into Walmart and see Chinese cars for sale’

In the 1970s, the bosses boasted that there was enough steel in the sprawling site to build three Queen Marys. It certainly looks like that today, except that the steel is now heaped in giant, rusting piles. “I spent 30 years in that building,” Gammella says, in an office strewn with auto parts cast in the factory. “My biggest fear is that, one day, I am going to walk into Walmart and see Chinese cars for sale.”

At its peak in the late 1970s, the Ford Cleveland plant employed nearly 15,000 people. There is now just one plant with 1,300 workers at last count. Most of what was left of the industry around Cleveland, such as the huge GM plant at Lordstown, might have disappeared as well, were it not for Obama’s decision early in 2009 to use government funds to bail out the US auto industry.

“I hear people in the plant criticise Barack Obama but the fact is, without him, we would not have a car industry today,” says Gammella. “But the Republicans are very good at isolating one or two issues that play on people. There’s a lot of anger out there and not only among the people who were laid off. They tend to vote angry and when they vote angry, they get it wrong.”

The government’s auto bail-out counted for little in the 2010 polls. The Republicans tied the broader economic crisis to government over-reach, not free-market foibles. Men on production lines and in the lengthening jobless queue were infused with the same anger that has stirred the Tea Party.

Blue-collar workers and the Tea Party, which is overwhelmingly white, have a lot of dislikes in common. Free trade, globalisation and China are near the top of most lists. “Can you imagine years back, if our corporations would have given Russia our industry and technology?” Gammella writes in The Enlightener. “They would have been tried for treason.”

Then there is the issue of race, ever present in the US, even if it sometimes lurks under the surface. The fact that there is a black president in the White House is only part of the story. The bigger trend is the sense that whites are declining, ever more disconnected from the new America growing up around them.

Already, one in two babies born in the US is classified as a “minority”, which means they are black, Asian or, most likely, Hispanic. By 2040, according to William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, whites will make up less than half the population. In the past decade, 92 per cent of population growth has come from minorities. “There is a huge cultural gap between the whites and the generation coming up,” says Frey. “There is still this fear that government resources will be going to the younger generation for a whole bunch of services.”

It is no wonder that the traditional white working class in Ohio and elsewhere are angry. They earn less than they have for decades; male median wages have dropped in real terms by about one-third since the early 1970s. They have less job security and fewer benefits; most of the jobs lost in the recession were those of men. Worse prospects mean they are less marriageable as well. A wave of changes, from civil rights reform to affirmative action, the globalisation of the workforce and the rise of working women, has upended the white working man’s world.

But whites still retain their power at the ballot box. They may make up only 64 per cent of the population, but they comprise 77 per cent of voters. “Whites make a huge difference in places like Ohio, because that’s where they live – and they turn out to vote,” says Frey.

Some of these are Tea Party-types who can’t wait for the 2012 election. “Right now, it is anybody but Romney,” says Randy Newman, who used to work in a car yard. “But in November, it will be anyone but Obama.”

They all have a few things in common. They hate the media but watch Fox News. They mostly listen to Glenn Beck, the former Fox host who, in the words of one commentator, “made extremism congenial”. The conservative swear word “Obamacare” – or Obama’s legislation to extend health insurance to millions of Americans without coverage – symbolises the peak of their discontent with the expansion of government.

“It just seems that the government is too much in our business. They are going in the direction of socialism. They always want to see what is going on everywhere,” says Larry Stewart. The 55-year-old knows a bit about government. He has worked for the US Postal Service for a quarter of a century. “Sometimes I am kind of torn,” he admits. “When I check around, I can see that people might think I am overpaid and underworked.” Still, he says Washington needs to make it hard to “collect money off the government”.

Scott Sedlak, DJ: ‘ This is the election where we decide, once and for all, whether we want big government or not’

Encouraged by Beck, many Tea Partiers are self-taught historians and, like him, constitutional fundamentalists, wary of any infringements on their First and Second Amendment rights, which protect free speech and the right to bear arms respectively. Scott Sedlak, a bulky young man who DJs under the name of Mr Bigg, said some “things [Beck] talked about caused me to look deeper. I realised I had to educate myself.” He calls the election in November the “most important since 1860”, when Abraham Lincoln was elected. “This is where we decide, once and for all, whether we want big government or not,” he says.

Still, in recent months, the tide has begun to turn against the Republicans in Ohio. Despite having previously voted for the Republicans, Frank Szabo, the union leader, recently helped squash an attempt by the state’s Republican governor to ban collective bargaining rights for unions, and says he has become deeply suspicious about the party.

The two frontrunners in the Republican race for the 2012 nomination, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, both opposed the 2008 auto bail-out. In neighbouring Michigan, where the car industry is headquartered, their head-to-head ratings against Obama have plummeted.

But the Republicans have their own mini-trump card in Ohio: Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, aka Joe the Plumber, who shot to fame in the 2008 election when he confronted Obama about his small business policy.

The run-in has been good to Wurzelbacher. Upon becoming an overnight conservative cult figure, he turned himself into a motivational speaker, earning far more than he ever did as a plumber. Four years later, he is trying to run as a Republican for Congress near the Cleveland area.

Over breakfast in Washington, where he is attending the annual conservative jamboree, seeking endorsements and trying to raise money, Wurzelbacher has a very traditional pitch, promising to get the government off people’s backs. But beyond taxes, what really matters in Ohio are social issues and sporting pursuits.

“I love to hunt, fish and go to the driving range and shoot, and the Democrats have been responsible for restricting gun access,” Wurzelbacher says. “I like to have something solid done at the end of the day. I just think men are built that way.”

Richard McGregor is the FT’s Washington bureau chief.

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