By keeping his distance, has Obama played Wisconsin right?

With the battle of Wisconsin reverberating in union halls across the country, Obama has refrained from weighing in forcefully on a core Democratic issue. Analysts say he has played it right.

Wisconsin State Journal/M.P. King/AP
To jeers of 'Shame!' yelled by the Assembly Democrats, Assembly Republicans, foreground, immediately walk out of the chamber after cutting off debate and voting to pass the budget repair bill at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., early Friday morning. Obama has refrained from weighing in forcefully on the Wisconsin battle or the many similar union battles across the country.

As the great battle of Wisconsin has raged – the newly minted budget-cutting Republican governor vs. public-employee unions – President Obama has appeared to be in a no-win situation.

Mr. Obama needs the manpower and money of Big Labor to help him mount a vigorous reelection campaign in 2012, and it is vital to his political interests that the unions remain strong. That the battle is centered in the political swing state of Wisconsin – with side skirmishes going on in two more swing states, Ohio and Indiana – only raises the stakes.

At the same time, Obama needs to show that he’s serious about fiscal responsibility, amid dire predictions about the nation’s unsustainable deficits. He and the Democrats are heading for their own showdown with Republicans in Congress over federal budget-cutting and a possible government shutdown.

Had Obama faced such a vexing predicament last year, he may not have been able to resist the temptation to appease his political base and address head on an issue touching core Democratic principles.

But Obama has, for the most part, stayed out of the Wisconsin imbroglio, and in fact, political analysts say, in not carving out an intricate “middle way,” Obama has played it right.

“The biggest danger in some ways was for him to be consumed by this issue,” says Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “That hasn’t happened.”

Staying on message

Instead, Obama has remained focused on his jobs message. As things stand now, getting the unemployment rate down from its current 9 percent to closer to 8 percent by Election Day is his most important reelection task.

The president did weigh in on Wisconsin late last week, saying that “some of what I’ve heard ... seems like more of an assault on unions.” He referenced in particular Gov. Scott Walker’s effort to curtail public employees’ collective bargaining rights.

The group Organizing for America – Obama’s old political network that is now part of the Democratic National Committee – had encouraged volunteers to support the protests, but party officials say the White House was not involved.

During his first two years in office, Obama at times derailed his main message by commenting on a side issue – such as the mistaken arrest in 2009 of a black Harvard scholar by a white police officer in Cambridge, Mass., which ignited a week of public discussion about race relations, rather than health-care reform.

Obama’s new message discipline can be attributed partly to his staff shakeup – a new chief of staff, William Daley, and new top political adviser, David Plouffe, both of whom are seen as more organized than their predecessors. Obama has also learned from experience.

“There’s a maturity to the situation,” says Democratic strategist Peter Fenn. “When you’re president of the United States, you don’t just go running around saying whatever comes into your mind.”

Mr. Fenn agrees that Obama has handled Wisconsin correctly. He’s made it clear where he stands, but has not jumped in with both feet.

“Obama’s approach from the State of the Union on has been, ‘Hey, we have to grow this economy, we have to compete in the international marketplace, we have to invest in education and science and technology, and we have to get businesses going and get the money off the sidelines and into hiring, and I’m going to be focused on that,’” says Fenn.

Disappointment on the left

Though some on the left have expressed disappointment that Obama hasn’t done more in support of the unions, such as visiting Madison, the capital of Wisconsin, the president is following his pattern of keeping his liberal base at arm’s length, on the theory that it has nowhere else to go come election time. Still, there is some risk in Obama’s approach. In the 2008 elections, unions spent some $400 million to help Obama and other Democrats get elected, not to mention the countless man-hours union members spent on get-out-the-vote.

And of course, a serious threat to collective bargaining rights, a fundamental function of unions, can’t be taken lightly. Analysts have likened Governor Walker’s effort to break his state’s public-sector unions to President Reagan’s success in breaking the air traffic controllers’ union, or PATCO, in 1981.

“It could be even bigger than PATCO,” says Mr. Zelizer. “You could see the ripples throughout the states, because of the economic situation. Even though polls are on the side of the unions, you could see that turning quite easily, if the governor said, ‘Would you rather we shut your school or get rid of the union?’ ”

But for now, most states are not following Walker’s lead. Other new Republican governors anxious to eliminate budget deficits have refrained from going after collective bargaining, even as they ask for other concessions from unions. Govs. Chris Christie (R) of New Jersey and Rick Scott (R) of Florida have both said they can live with collective bargaining.

A story in Politico notes that Walker’s fellow Republican governors have praised his approach, but few are following his lead, opting for a more conciliatory demeanor. Of the nation’s 29 Republican governors, only four have written blurbs for a website created by the Republican Governors Association called “Stand with Scott,” Politico writes. Two are possible presidential candidates (Rick Perry of Texas and Haley Barbour of Mississippi) and one has expressed interest in being vice president (Bob McDonnell of Virginia).

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