(Jonathan Weisman/Wall Street Journal) – President Barack Obama, after initially lending his support to organized labor, has stepped back from the fights spreading in state capitals from Wisconsin to Tennessee, leaving union officials divided about his tactics.
Democratic officials said that with Mr. Obama heading into battles over the federal budget, a plunge into the fray over public-sector collective bargaining could weaken his position as a deal-maker in Washington.
Mr. Obama is eager to occupy the political center, Democratic officials said, to help him forge a bipartisan deal on the nation’s long-term finances that could strengthen his position heading into the 2012 election. Mr. Obama has already tacked to the center on taxes, on trade and by working to forge stronger ties with business leaders.
For their part, many union leaders worry that White House involvement could harm their case that the protests and political actions in the capitals of Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana are grassroots, organic movements.
“I don’t think the president’s involvement in making this a Republican and Democrat issue would be particularly helpful at this point,” said Andy Stern, a former president of the Service Employees International Union.
But others say Mr. Obama, as the leader of the Democratic Party, should do more to help the labor movement, which provides money and grassroots organizing muscle for Democratic candidates and whose power is now threatened by Republican efforts to curtail collective bargaining rights.
“Everybody is looking to the president on this one,” said Amy Dean, a labor activist and former AFL-CIO official in California. “The grassroots infrastructure of the Democratic Party is organized labor.”
Rep. Raul Grijalva (D., Ariz.), a co-chairman of the House Progressive Caucus, agreed. “There’s a bully pulpit there that the president has, and it needs to be used,” he said. “I don’t think you can turn the cheek on this one.”
As a candidate, Mr. Obama tried to build an image as a post-partisan leader willing to challenge his own party’s power base. That included support for charter schools and a call for teacher pay to be based on performance standards, putting him at odds with teachers unions.
More recently, Mr. Obama’s emphasis on trade has divided the union movement. And his recent, two-year salary freeze for federal workers infuriated some public-sector labor groups.
The Obama team does not view organized labor as critical to its political ground game. Union activists are helpful, Democratic officials believe, but Mr. Obama’s political operation still has faith that its own campaign will be the central organizing force of the 2012 campaign.
One AFL-CIO official said “it would be nice” if the president weighed in more forcefully, but, he added that it probably isn’t necessary. The state-level attacks on collective bargaining have united once-quiet union members into a fighting force against the GOP, and that will redound to Mr. Obama’s political benefit, regardless of his involvement.
“Obama won’t ever be the unions’ dream candidate,” conceded one Democratic Party official. “But choices are relative, and [union members] are going to be ticked at Republicans” in 2012.
Mr. Obama and the White House initially signaled support for the public-sector unions in Wisconsin. Last week, he told a Milwaukee television station that Gov. Scott Walker’s legislation to curb collective bargaining “seems like more of an assault on unions” than a budget-balancing effort. Democratic officials let it be known that the president’s political arm, Organizing for America, was helping to rally protesters.
Then, the White House began saying the protest movements were locally motivated and not the work of the president or Democratics in Washington.
White House press secretary Jay Carney on Wednesday defended collective bargaining rights but said “public-sector employees obviously have to tighten their belts.” He said he is not aware that Mr. Obama has “been in contact with national labor leaders,” although he is “aware of reports about what’s happening in these areas.”
Republican leaders have readily associated themselves with their party’s side in Wisconsin. The Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee have kept up attacks linking protesters to the president. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee on Wednesday called on Governor Walker to “hang tough, stand tall, hold your ground.”
Wisconsin Senate Democratic Leader Mark Miller said the president’s voice will not be decisive in the showdown. “Really, the people of our state, and the people of our country have been able to find their own voice in this battle,” he said. “The voices of the people are the voices the governor needs to listen to.”