Obama would limit himself, at best, to a narrow victory if he turned his party away from these voters. He cannot allow a narrative to form that he “abandoned” working-class whites. These Americans already feel forgotten. There is nothing to be gained by affirming that emotion. Political oppositions thrive off of antagonists.
It’s worth also noting that Republicans already have a sharp arrow in their quiver. They’ll surely remind America of Obama’s “bitter” comments about small-town whites in 2008. And this time, Obama will not have a sudden economic crash to blanket his mistakes.
More substantially, Obama does not need to resign himself to these divisions. The president has a case to make. The working class suffered most from his choice to invest his political capital in health care reform instead of a new New Deal. Yet, in the long term, blue-collar whites will benefit from that reform — should it survive. Thus, even on this most unpopular policy, Obama has an argument — however modest. Blue-collar whites constitute about 40 percent of the roughly 38 million Americans without health insurance.
Even if the president ekes out a victory, the neo-Democratic strategy resigns him to a modest fate. He will lack the mandate to overcome Washington gridlock. The man who was once framed as a prophetic uniter will have divided in order to conquer. It could work. But it leaves very little margin for error. At best, humble strategies win humble goals. And at worst, well, ask Kerry or Mondale.