West Virginia Democrats Embrace Panetta Despite Obama Criticism

Former Defense secretary's new book is no hindrance in a state that dislikes the president.

CHARLESTON, W.Va.—On Tuesday, Leon Panetta published a sharply critical new book about his former boss, President Obama. On Saturday, the ex-Defense secretary traveled here to deliver the keynote address at the West Virginia Democratic Party's annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner.

Awkward, right? Not in West Virginia.

The harsh critique of their party's leader didn't seem to faze the hundreds of rank-and-file Democrats gathered here, about half of whom gave Panetta a standing ovation as he walked across the stage during an introduction of the night's speakers. If there were jeers, they were drowned out by applause and cheers.

Panetta—who received a second standing ovation after a warm introduction from Sen. Joe Manchin—didn't address his criticism of the president during his speech, opting to mention Obama in passing only once and instead sharing old stories about the state's late longtime senator, Robert Byrd.

But the raucous reception was a reminder that even though Obama has won back-to-back presidential elections, he's never been popular in the Mountain State—even within the Democratic Party here. It's why Hillary Clinton won the state's primary easily here in 2008 and why Obama lost nearly 40 percent of the vote to an unknown convicted felon in the 2012 primary.

Earlier this year, the state's Democratic nominee for Senate, Natalie Tennant, ran a TV ad that depicted her shutting off the White House's lights to declare her opposition to the president. Obama's social liberalism and, above all, his administration's new carbon-emission standards alienate him from a party that's culturally conservative and views coal as the state's lifeblood.

"West Virginia, at a state level, is so much different than national politics," said Belinda Biafore, the state's party's vice-chair. "I think they remember [Panetta] more as Bill Clinton's chief of staff—they love Bill Clinton."

She said she watched several Democrats ask Panetta to sign his book.

"It's not awkward," said Biafore, who added that Panetta had been asked to speak at the night's events months ago, before the content of his book was known.

Democrats elsewhere, especially in the White House, haven't been so warm toward Panetta. Vice President Joe Biden called the publication of his book inappropriate. Other former White House aides have offered harsher criticism. Its timing—the publication came exactly one month before Election Day—was unquestionably difficult for a president whose unpopularity is already being blamed for expected Republican gains in the House and Senate.

But interviews with Democrats here made clear that none of them thought Panetta's appearance was off-putting. Most were glad just to have someone of his stature speaking at the dinner.

"Well, you got to remember, Barack Obama is not the most popular in West Viriginia," said John Gainer, a 28-year-old on hand to support his father, a congressional candidate in the state. "[Panetta] has got an impressive résumé."

"West Virginia Democrats are not national Democrats," said Amy Stowers, a 45-year-old local Democratic Party official. "Our attitudes are not the same as theirs, to a degree."

Other Democrats suggested the timing of Panetta's book could have been better, and they said they didn't agree with its criticism. But none said they thought he should have been replaced as the keynote speaker.

"He's been a big part of our party for many years," said Billy Pack, of Hurricane, W.Va., who is 75 years old. "I don't think he'd try to intentionally tear it down. I guess everyone has to sell a book."

Obama was rarely mentioned in any context for most of the dinner. Democrats here face a series of critical elections in November, headlined by the fight to retain Sen. Jay Rockefeller's seat in the Senate, and most of their campaigns focus on trying to distance themselves from the president.

Manchin, while introducing Panetta, offered the most direct comment on Obama of the night, saying that while he disagrees with the president, he hopes he succeeds. His comment was greeted by applause.