West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin told TIME Thursday that President Barack Obama has lost his emotional connection with the American people.
"There’s an old saying my grandmother would say, people don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care," he said in a phone interview. "And the President is bright and very articulate and speaks very well. People just don’t believe he cares. That’s the disconnect that I’m seeing."
Manchin, one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress, could fill a key role next year as the Senate Republican majority tries to implement its agenda, including authorizing the Keystone XL pipeline and raising the Affordable Care Act's workweek from 30 hours to 40 hours—two proposals that Manchin supports and believes have enough bipartisan support to reach 60 votes for passage. He called a Keystone vote a "slam-dunk," and he considers the Obamacare fix crucial despite a nonpartisan congressional report that found it would reduce the number of people receiving employment-based coverage by about 1 million people and increase the deficit by about $25 billion over the next five years.
"To say that now we’re going to verify the 30 hours—we’ll be worse than Europe," he said. "I can’t go to West Virginia and try to sell that crap."
He is also considering another run for governor in West Virginia in 2016, a race that could lead him to leave his Senate seat two years early. He previously served as governor from 2005 until 2010. "Whatever I do in the future I want to see the restructuring of the Senate—where we are [and] how we’re going to operate—before I make that [decision]," said Manchin. "So that happens what, the middle of January? So hopefully by the first quarter. There will be a trend pretty quick by February or March. We’ll be able to say, 'Is it same-old, same-old or is it really moving in a different direction?'"
In a June TIME profile, Manchin said he's "never been in a less productive time in my life than I am right now, in the United States Senate.” On Thursday, Manchin said he was "hopeful" that in the Republican majority—likely led by Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell—he could prove more useful.
"I liked everything I heard—that we’re going to have a process that’s going to work," he said, citing McConnell's post-election comments and conversations he's had with some of his Republican colleagues on a commitment to breaking through congressional gridlock. "Now the Republicans are saying 'listen, we’re going to have an open process, we’re going to have a committee system.'"
"If they don’t go to extremes and try to fight that then that’ll show that they were able to accomplish things that we didn’t accomplish," he added.
But Manchin is obviously wary of placing too much faith in Senate Republicans if he's considering leaving his Potomac River houseboat for his old Charleston mansion. On Friday, he stepped down from his honorary co-chair spot at No Labels, a nonpartisan third-party group, a week and a half after a report that it would lead a get out the vote effort for Colorado Republican Rep. Cory Gardner, who toppled Democratic Senator Mark Udall on Tuesday.
"I’m anxious for change," he said. "There’s going to be some challenges but there’s some hellacious opportunities and I want to take advantage of them. And let’s see if they're willing to do them. If they’re not and it’s all talk— smoke and mirrors—[it's] not a place I want to be."