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Obama needs an 'economics' of national pride

The path to the White House passes through the blue-collar communities in Ohio where President Obama campaigned last week -- and the middle-class suburbs of Colorado where he did well four years ago.

The two states illustrate the imperative for both parties to assemble coalitions that cross class lines. Obama did precisely this in 2008. In Colorado, 58 percent of the state's voters had college or postgraduate degrees -- and Obama built his nine-point margin over John McCain largely within this highly educated group. In Ohio, where 39 percent of voters had college or advanced degrees, Obama scored a five-point victory. He edged McCain across all educational groups.

Typically, Democrats tie themselves up in strategic knots debating whether their future lies in the center or on the left. Should they concentrate primarily on upscale voters, who usually combine liberal social views with moderate-to-conservative economic views? Or should they focus instead on working-class voters, often social moderates or conservatives who respond to appeals rooted in economic populism?

Two moderate Colorado Democrats who won in the face of the 2010 Republican tide see a way out of this dilemma. The key to a philosophically coherent cross-class coalition, they suggest, can be found in widespread unease over the loss of American jobs to overseas enterprises and the need to restore traditional American advantages in education and innovation. An Ohio Democrat with a rather different ideological profile, Sen. Sherrod Brown, broadly shares their view.

Sen. Michael Bennet and Gov. John Hickenlooper are middle-of-the-road former Colorado businessmen who fare well with moderates and independents. In separate telephone interviews, they suggested that voters in working-class precincts in Ohio and middle-class enclaves in Colorado may have more in common than political punditry normally allows.

Bennet sees one overriding question in American politics: "How do we re-couple economic growth with job growth and wage growth?" Note that Bennet focuses not just on growth in general or even job growth. He adds the essential component of wage growth, as important in Ohio's blue-collar neighborhoods as it is in Colorado's suburban office parks.

Bennet's emphasis on ending wage stagnation and decline is what distinguishes progressive economics -- however moderate and pragmatic in form -- from conservative economics, which sees business growth alone as solving our problems.

Voters of all stripes, Bennet says, are concerned about "job growth here." That word "here" is very important. There is nothing "protectionist" about worrying that the Great American Jobs Machine is not what it used to be, or that jobs that might once have been created in the United States are springing up elsewhere (or are being offshored). Voters, Bennet said, "want us to lead, they want us to try harder and not give up."

Both Bennet and Hickenlooper stress education reform as central to any jobs agenda, and Hickenlooper sees this as an Obama advantage this fall. "No president has been more aggressive in trying to change the culture of public schools," says Hicklenlooper. He goes on to make the moderate's case for Obama by praising his "all of the above" approach to energy policy and the "collaborative pragmatism" of his Cabinet on energy, environmental, transportation and urban development issues.

But the governor of a state with limited exposure to automobile manufacturing also spontaneously mentions the rescue of the auto industry as another Obama asset, arguing that "there was a level of pride" in American car companies that "was largely dissipated." Now, because of the "risk" Obama took, there's a new sense of confidence. "These companies are back," he said.

None of this surprises Sen. Brown, a proud pro-union liberal who campaigned with Obama in Ohio last week. Brown notes that Obama has gained ground in his state both by being tough in enforcing trade rules on behalf of American companies and by pursuing a "high-end manufacturing strategy" that appeals to the nation's "historical pride in manufacturing, and in making things."

For Brown, who faces re-election this year, one of the voters he keeps in mind is the "guy in Zanesville who made big things with his hands and now has gone from $17 an hour to $11 an hour."

The candidate who speaks to voters like Brown's Zanesville worker -- and to his white-collar equivalent in Colorado -- is likely to win the election. Mitt Romney hopes the national unemployment rate will get them to vote Republican. Obama's challenge is to offer an economics of national pride and renewal that answers the sense of betrayal these voters began feeling long before he took office.

Email E.J. Dionne ejdionnewashpost.com.