A prominent union official in Washington says he's often wondered how President Barack Obama would answer the old organizing song, "Which Side Are You On?" -- until Obama weighed in on the Wisconsin labor war this week.
Obama's strongly-worded opposition to GOP plans to repeal the collective bargaining rights of Wisconsin public state employees, which he termed an "assault" on workers' rights, has gone a long way towards repairing the relationship between the president and his union allies after two years of mutual disappointment and friction.
But Obama, ever seeking the center, was careful to limit his criticism to Republican Gov. Scott Walker's attempt to roll back collective bargaining rights, and not Walker's attempt to plug his state's budget gap by forcing employees to pick up a greater share of the pension and health insurance costs.
"The president has been accused of watching situations to see how they develop so I think the fact that he issued a clear, clean, quick statement was critical for the relationship. It helps enormously," said former SEIU president Andy Stern, a key Obama labor ally who served on his deficit commission.
"But he's trying to walk the appropriate line here too??? We all clearly need to recognize that the states these battles are going to take place in are critical states for the president and other Democrats in 2012," he added.
Republicans tried to blur that line on Friday, arguing that Obama is sticking his nose into a state's fiscal matters, while burdening local governments with onerous health reform mandates.
The White House spent much of the day counterpunching.
"He is very understanding of the need for state governments, governors, state legislatures to reduce spending, to make tough choices, to be fiscally responsible," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Portland, Ore.
"But he also feels very strongly that we need not to make this an assault on the collective bargaining rights of workers in a given state. Public service workers need to make sacrifices just like everyone else, but there's a distinction here that he sees. And I just want to make sure that people see that he was very clear about his recognition that states need to deal with their budgets just like the federal government needs to deal with its budget."
It's all part of the Obama's tricky Midwestern two-step -- an attempt to energize a heavily unionized Democratic base in states like Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania who sat out the 2010 midterms, while not alienating the independents who helped evict dozens of Democratic incumbents from state houses and Congress last November.
Obama came into office on a crest of union support and supported many of the big ticket items at the top of its agenda: the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier to unionize closed shops, health care reform and the stimulus bill, which pumped billions into projects and government services that employ unionized workers.
But the relationship has frayed over the particulars. On health care, Obama punted on the labor-backed public option, he never made the free choice act a top legislative priority. He vigorously supported Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln in a primary with labor's chosen candidate. And last, but certainly not least, he proposed an across-the-board federal pay freeze that many workers' groups viewed as an attempt to woo white independent votes -- many of whom view the government workforce as a pampered special interest.
But in Wisconsin, Obama had no choice but stand up for his friends in labor, according to Charles Franklin, a University of Wisconsin, Madison political scientist and polling specialist. "The unions are seeing it as essentially a threat to their existence."
And the protests against Walker and the Republican legislature -- fueled by the disappearance of Democratic legislators who are refusing to vote on Walker's plan -- have energized labor supporters more than anything since - well, Obama's 2008 campaign there.
"It just invigorated the Democrats in Wisconsin," said Ed Huck, a Wisconsin Republican political consultant. "On Saturday there are going to be 30,000 people that may not have been going door-to-door in Wisconsin that is now going to be going door-to-door in Wisconsin???Something has happened here, a fight has come back with a vengeance in the Democratic party. So I think there will be something in 2012 that will benefit the president."
On Friday, for the second day in a row, Democratic state senators, who had fled to neighboring Illinois, missed a scheduled vote on Walker's budget measure, successfully preventing the legislature from moving forward.
But the leader of the state's largest public worker union said the union would agree to concessions on pensions and insurance benefits, if Walker abandoned his bid to weaken the union's bargaining power, according to news reports. Walker is reviewing the proposal, his spokesman told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
For Obama, who won Wisconsin by a whopping 56 to 42 percent in 2008, Wisconsin holds major risks.
Republicans, led by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), are now accusing him of inciting rowdy protesters flooding the state sapitol in Madison, citing reports in POLITICO and elsewhere that Organizing for America, keeper of Obama's grassroots database and now part of the Democratic National Committee, has provided logistical support for the demonstrators.
Walker, who has had to use a back entrance to the capitol to avoid catcalls, said Friday that it would be "wise" for Obama to focus on the federal budget instead of the situation in his state.
Yet small gestures matter during huge crises, and Obama's brief remarks have earned him instant good will from union leaders who privately grouse about his caution.
"Some of what I've heard coming out of Wisconsin, where they're just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally, seems like more of an assault on unions," Obama told a Milwaukee television reporter Wednesday night when asked about the battle in Madison. "I think everybody's got to make some adjustments, but I think it's also important to recognize that public employees make enormous contributions to our states and our citizens."
Union leaders have seized on that one word -- "assault" -- as providing the movement with precisely the right messaging in decrying Walker's initiatives, which labor leaders claim is an attack on workers' rights and a brazen effort to weaken a pillar of the Democratic Party.
"He's given labor a quote they can use and we're using it," said an aide to one of the country's top labor leaders.
But the people around Obama are contributing more than just words. OFA has set up 15 phone banks to rally Democrats to the union cause and helped organized some of the transportation to rallies. Late Thursday, OFA leaders posted a statement on the group's web site announcing it "is mobilizing on the ground in Wisconsin to defend the rights of public employees from an attempt by the governor to take away their rights."
That created an immediate attack from Republicans, including Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who accused OFA of coordinating the protests in Madison.
DNC spokesman Hari Sevugan disputed that, saying, "Our role in this is being exaggerated by others to distract attention from the passionate grassroots activism that is being displayed on the ground in Wisconsin."
Yet the Bachmann attack exposed Obama's considerable vulnerabilities in a state that swept Republicans like Walker and GOP Sen. Ron Johnson to victories just four months ago.
"[Obama's] big margin [in 2008] was the exception not the rule for presidential elections, which have been hair thin in the state," says Franklin. "For a national organization like OFA you would certainly expect them to side with the base. Not to mention picking up a few emails in the process??? [But] mobilizing your base won't help you with independents."