One of the more comic claims by the right-wing chattering class is that President Barack Obama has played a significant role in the struggle by workers in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan and other states to beat back the anti-labor agenda of new Republican governors and their legislative allies.
In fact, Obama has stayed clear of the struggles. Aside from a few statements of sympathy with collective bargaining, the president and his political team have kept out of these "Which side are you on?" fights.
And Obama will continue the pattern this week, as he circumnavigates the Upper Midwest on an officially nonpolitical bus tour that is clearly intended to renew his political prospects. At a point when a new Gallup Poll puts the president's approval rating at just 39 percent, the tour is needed.
But its route is conspicuous in its avoidance of Wisconsin.
Obama started in the battleground state of Minnesota Monday, heads to the battleground state of Iowa Tuesday and finishes in his more reliably Democratic home state of Illinois Wednesday. But he never touches the battleground state of Wisconsin — where mass demonstrations have challenged the anti-labor agenda of Gov. Scott Walker and where a recall movement last week removed two Republican senators who voted with Walker.
Remarkably, Obama will be within 20 miles of Wisconsin Tuesday, the day when two Democratic senators who sided with labor face recall challenges.
Obama's Tuesday stop in Peosta, Iowa, just west of Dubuque, will put him iust across the Mississippi River from southwest Wisconsin, a region that Bill Clinton, Al Gore and John Kerry all focused intense attention on in their presidential campaigns — as it is a key swing region in a key swing state.
So why not swing through Wisconsin? Indeed, why not make the easy trip across southern Wisconsin to Kenosha County, where Democratic state Sen. Bob Wirch's recall election fight provides the clearest test of the collective bargaining issue? (Wirch, a former brass factory worker and veteran union man, is challenged by a corporate lawyer from Chicago who is closely aligned with Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus.)
So why not visit Wisconsin on this trip?
Well, it's complicated.
Obama has maintained an arms-length relationship with the forces that have been fighting in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states that are trying to overturn anti-labor laws and defend public services and public education. These forces are part of his base — not just unions but liberal activist groups and community organizations — and he will need them in 2012. But he clearly presumes they will be with him and that he does not need to take bold stands on their behalf.
In this, Obama may be right. As the labor battles of the winter and spring played out in Wisconsin, Ohio and other traditional battleground states, the poll numbers for Republicans (particularly governors such as Wisconsin's Walker and Ohio's John Kasich) tanked, while Democratic numbers improved.
The movements that have developed in a number of states are now more muscular, more widespread and more focused on core issues than in the past. That could be beneficial to Obama in 2012.
But there is frustration with the president's hands-off approach. One of the most common questions I have heard in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan and other states as workers have rallied and political fights have played out this year is: "Where's Obama?"
This week, Obama will be close, just a few miles away. But he won't cross the line.
Some activists on the ground think that is a good thing. The last two recalls are critical fights playing out on competitive turf.
The Democrats have built coalitions that include independents and Republicans who are offended by Walker's extremism. Bringing Obama in at the last minute could strain some of those coalitions. The concern is that an Obama visit might remind relatively conservative, Republican-leaning union members that, while they may be loyal to Democratic state senators who stood for labor (a Bob Wirch in southern Wisconsin or a Jim Holperin in rural northern Wisconsin), they're not all that comfortable with the president.
By the same token, there are Democratic strategists who argue that Obama retains an appeal to elements of the Democratic base, and a quick trip to Wisconsin could help Democrats win two critical elections — strengthening its position politically and legislatively.
Faced with competing pressures, Obama has opted against wading into a fight. It might well be the right move for the moment. But it is the wrong signal.
The unsettling thing about the turns taken on this presidential bus trip is the sense that they are following a pattern. Where there is a struggle being waged on behalf of working people, the president all too frequently veers away from the fight.Wisconsin WaveWisconsin WaveWisconsin Wave