President Obama is sending a clear message to his allies in the labor movement as he gears up for his reelection campaign: I’ve got your back.
The president has waded into the bitter standoff in Wisconsin between Gov. Scott Walker (R) and public service unions, siding with protesters who say Walker’s plan to shore up his state’s budget with cuts to pensions and benefits is an “assault on unions.”
Obama's rebuke angered Walker, who said Friday on Fox News that, "It would be wise for the government and others in Washington to focus on balancing their budgets, which they are a long way off from doing."
Walker's plan has enraged public sector unions, because it would limit the collective-bargaining rights of state workers and force them to pay into their pensions and health insurance programs.
Tens of thousands of chanting and sign-waving protesters descended on Madison, Wis., this week, filling the state Capitol and capturing the attention of the national media.
Democrats in the legislature have boycotted a vote on Walker’s plan, and many have reportedly fled the state. Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald on Friday asked Walker to send state troopers to the home of the Senate’s Democratic leader in an effort to end the legislative paralysis.
Obama has tried to position himself in the political center since the midterm elections, mounting a public outreach to the business community that has unnerved many of his union allies.
Labor groups and Democratic groups had been smarting over Obama's decision to pursue a free-trade deal with South Korea, in addition to the passage of the tax-cut deal last year and his decision to freeze pay for federal workers.
They were also not thrilled by his choice of former Commerce Secretary William Daley as his chief of staff, a business ally who had expressed lukewarm support for the healthcare reform bill, which was a labor priority.
But the president showed with his comments about the Wisconsin standoff that he hasn’t abandoned his old union friends — groups that will be critical for his bid to stay in the White House.
Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the labor group that was instrumental in helping Obama win the Democratic nomination in 2008, hailed the president's remarks.
"I was really proud that the president was willing to stand with the people of Wisconsin who I believe are standing up for the preservation of the middle class," said Mary Kay Henry, international president of the SEIU.
Henry said Obama has long viewed union rights as important.
"My experience with him is that he operates on the framework that all of us should share in the sacrifice and that all of us should share in the investment to get this economy going again," Henry said. "I think he knows that collective bargaining is a way for people to raise their wages, to stand up for the services we provide to children, to seniors and to the general public."
Union support could be an especially critical factor in Wisconsin, a battleground state that could swing the president election. More than 15 percent of workers in Wisconsin were members of a union or were represented by a union in 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The White House is wasting no time firing up its ground game in the state. Democratic activists from Organizing for America, the Democratic National Committee's grassroots arm, have all turned out in Wisconsin to help organize rallies in support of the public workers.
Harold A. Schaitberger, general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, was in Wisconsin on Thursday and spoke to the protesters outside the state capitol building in Madison. He said he appreciated Obama's words of support for the protesting workers.
"To me, it was pretty clear that he was standing with and supporting the workers," Schaitberger said.
Schaitberger said the president has always been an advocate for collective bargaining rights for public workers, noting his support of a bill last Congress that would have extended those rights to firefighters and police officers who currently don't have them. The legislation passed the House but failed to make it out of the Senate last year.
"This statement was very consistent with that," Schaitberger said.
Obama's comments on the Wisconsin battle provoked House Republicans, who say state governments need to deal with their budget shortfalls and not expect the federal government to bail them out.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) issued a statement Thursday backing Walker.
"Republicans in Congress — and reform-minded GOP governors like Scott Walker, John Kasich and Chris Christie — are daring to speak the truth about the dire fiscal challenges Americans face at all levels of government, and daring to commit themselves to solutions that will liberate our economy and help put our citizens on a path to prosperity," Boehner said.
"I’m disappointed that instead of providing similar leadership from the White House, the president has chosen to attack leaders such as Gov. Walker, who are listening to the people and confronting problems that have been neglected for years at the expense of jobs and economic growth," he said.
Obama's push has appeared to mobilize Democrats. Wisconsin Rep. Ron Kind (D) has called for Walker's proposal to be taken off the table, and Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), who represents Madison, said the plan is "largely political.”
Democrats lost the Wisconsin governor's mansion to Republicans in 2010, in addition to two Senate seats and two House seats. Wisconsin's congressional delegation is now majority Republican: The GOP controls six out of the 10 seats in the state House and Senate.
Obama’s comments on Wisconsin’s plan could also resonate in other battleground states in which public union battles are raging, including Boehner’s home turf of Ohio.
More than 1,000 people protested Thursday in the state capital of Columbus over a law proposed by new GOP Gov. John Kasich that would strip collective-bargaining rights from public employee unions.
Kim Anderson, director of government relations for the National Education Association, said Obama's words of support helped the protesters in Wisconsin.
"I think it is certainly encouraging and it certainly lifted their spirits to know the president of the United States believes that they have a right to peacefully protest and that they have a right to to have a voice in their workplace," Anderson said.
This story was updated at 1:30 p.m. and 1:45 p.m.