"Balance'' also is his defense when he's chastised -- and it happens often -- for a gun compromise he pushed after last year's Connecticut elementary school massacre. The measure didn't include new weapons or ammunition bans. Instead, it would have extended existing background checks to more gun sales, but not to private transactions between parties who know each other.
Perhaps Manchin's deftest tightrope walk concerns the president himself. Obama got walloped twice in West Virginia, and a recent poll suggested that almost half the state's voters want him impeached. Manchin says Obama's poor standing isn't about him being the first black president, even though about 19 out of 20 West Virginia residents are white. Manchin contends that Democrats have a more general cultural problem on everything from guns to abortion, and that Obama's environmental positions escalate the distrust. "People have to like you and trust you,'' he said.
Manchin insists that "the White House and I don't exactly get along,'' but he nonetheless defends the president on some matters. Almost pre-emptively, he says at several stops, "Whether he's a Republican or Democrat, we should always respect the president and want him to succeed, because we want the nation to succeed.'' When one woman in Moundsville blasted Obama as an insufficient defender of Israel, Manchin interrupted her: "I don't think that's true.''
Manchin supported the immigration overhaul that Obama backed and that has been stymied in the GOP-run House. "You can't just deport 11 million people,'' he told those angry about his vote. The Affordable Care Act passed before he took office, but Manchin tells voters "the intentions were right'' and insists that a full repeal isn't practical or beneficial. Even as he criticized implementation of the health-care law, Manchin said Congress' job is to make it work.
However, he also reminds his more partisan critics that he opposes the confirmation of Janet Yellen, Obama's nominee for Federal Reserve chairman. He voted, too, against a Senate rules change that allows Democrats to confirm certain nominees with a simple majority of 51 votes, rather than the 60 previously required when the minority party objected.
"Most people know he doesn't just follow the party line,'' said Republican Bob Miller, a Marshall County commissioner. Although he supported Manchin's Republican opponent in the past two Senate elections, Miller said he's "never looked at Joe as Satan.''
Manchin said he operates as he did at the Statehouse in Charleston, where he remains an influential figure. State Sen. Larry Edgell, a Democrat, said then-Gov. Manchin met regularly with both party caucuses and also hosted small, bipartisan groups of lawmakers. Manchin now uses the same strategy inviting groups of senators out on a boat he keeps docked near Washington. The social outings have produced pairings like Republican Ted Cruz of Texas and Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York, according to Manchin's staff. "You've got to find leverage'' on issues, Manchin said, "and have the relationships to use it.''
Manchin said he's not trying to amass influence to "be a lifer'' in the Senate. He also didn't reject the possibility of looking beyond West Virginia, should an opportunity arise. "I'm not sure I'd put my family through that,'' he said of a national campaign. He added, though, "I'm happy to help wherever I can.''