Last week I commented on the larger economic significance of the Wisconsin recall for the average American, but it is also worth noting what it may very well mean for American politics and the soul of the Democratic Party. One thing is quite clear: Obama threw labor under the bus in Wisconsin. As a candidate in 2007, the President famously said, “If American workers are being denied their right to organize, I’ll put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself. I’ll walk that picket line with you as President of the United States.”
But when the rubber hit the road in Wisconsin, he sent a twitter message, had Bill Clinton sub for him, and walked the other way. Indeed, back at the height of the drama in the Badger state, all the President could muster was a feeble statement about how union workers were “friends and neighbors.”
Why was the President’s support so tepid? The conventional wisdom is that Obama’s re-election team saw the writing on the wall and didn’t want to risk the President’s prestige on a losing cause or alienate the Walker voters who were still Obama supporters (the President is leading Romney in the polls with the same electorate that Walker just won). If that is the case, then Obama’s actions are a shameless display of political cowardice. At a crucial historic moment for the American labor movement (the long-suffering but loyal foot soldiers of the Democratic party) the face of “hope” abandoned them in the name of short-term political expediency.
If Obama were a man of his word, a person loyal to his core principles, he would have come to Wisconsin and given one of the best speeches of his life in defense of the essential value of collective bargaining. He would have spoken to the importance of the American labor movement to our democracy. If the role of American labor as working peoples’ only way to stand up to powerful economic interests actually meant something to him, Obama would have done what he did on gay marriage. He would have tossed the polling concerns to the side and stood with labor by educating the American people about the importance of unions.
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