President Obama waded into 2016 waters Monday when he slammed Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) for a new state law that curbs the power of labor unions.
Democrats say Obama’s unusual shot at the likely GOP candidate, who sits atop early polls, could energize liberal opposition to Walker as he moves closer to a presidential run.
But Republican allies of Walker believe the president’s broadside could actually help the governor’s impending candidacy by elevating his stature in the GOP field.
It’s rare for Obama to single out state laws for criticism in White House statements. But that is what the president did Monday night after Wisconsin’s so-called “right to work” bill became law.
Obama said he was “deeply disappointed” in Walker’s decision to sign the measure, which would block labor unions from collecting dues from individual workers without their consent.
“It’s inexcusable that, over the past several years, just when middle-class families and workers need that kind of security the most, there’s been a sustained, coordinated assault on unions, led by powerful interests and their allies in government,” the president added.
The GOP governor said in a statement that the measure would give workers the “freedom to choose” whether to join a union and would bolster the state’s economy.
Walker’s high-profile battles with labor unions are what catapulted him onto the national stage. His successful 2011 effort to limit the collective bargaining power of public-employee unions gained widespread attention, and the so-called “right to work” law represented another victory for Walker and Republicans.
The governor survived a 2012 recall attempt after his initial clash with labor and won reelection in 2014 in the blue state, but now he has his eye on the White House.
Walker has a unique cross-party appeal to both hardcore conservatives and more establishment-minded Republicans because of his record in the state, which hasn’t voted for a Republican president since 1984.
Thanks to a strong performance at early 2016 cattle calls, Walker is performing well in polls.
Fifty-three percent of Republican primary voters say they could vote for Walker, while 17 percent said they could not, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Monday. The same survey showed most voters want a fresh face, like Walker, rather than a known quantity, like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
As a result, Democrats are trying to stop Walker’s momentum. Obama’s decision to go after the governor could help motivate key liberal constituencies in 2016, according to Democratic strategists. That includes labor unions, which have sometimes clashed with Obama over economic issues such as trade.
“He is a very viable candidate, and I assume they wanted to take a whack at him,” said Jim Manley, a veteran Democratic strategist and former aide to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “He symbolizes, and allows you to draw a contrast with, some of these anti-worker positions.
“It’s drawing a line in the sand,” added Manley.
Income inequality and workers rights are poised to be major issues in the 2016 presidential campaign. Labor unions have lost clout in historic Midwestern strongholds, such as Michigan and Indiana, which have recently adopted “right to work” measures.
White House officials say Walker’s possible presidential candidacy had nothing to do with their decision to criticize the law.
“I saw a lot of the political commentary speculating that that’s what we were doing, but our bottom line is this is an issue that we have spoken out whenever it rears its ugly head,” White House principal deputy press secretary Eric Schultz told reporters Tuesday during a gaggle aboard Air Force One.
“Instead of rolling back workers’ rights, states, including Wisconsin, should be expanding workers’ rights, like raising the minimum wage and paid sick leave,” Schultz added.
The White House noted the president has commented on state issues before, pointing to three statements last year on state minimum wages increases in Massachusetts, Minnesota and Connecticut.
Obama personally criticized Michigan’s “right to work” legislation one day before it came law in December 2012.
But Obama’s decision to go after Walker this time around could have the effect, intended or not, of strengthening the governor’s hand among Republican voters who dislike the president.
“If you’re on the Republican side and the president is beating up on you, that’s not a bad thing,” said Brandon Scholz, a Wisconsin-based GOP strategist and ally of Walker.
Scholz said if the past is any indication, the left’s criticism of Walker’s union policies only bolster his political stature.
“Gov. Walker has always sustained those body blows,” he said. “He’s always taken them and moved on. And that has made him stronger.”
Wisconsin became the 25th state to adopt a “right to work” law, and legislatures in others, such as New Mexico and Missouri, are considering similar measures.
Walker’s supporters say the president should view his state's new policies as a positive example for economic improvement.
“President Obama did what he does best and made the issue political to attempt to derail common-sense reforms,” Kirsten Kukowski, a spokeswoman for Walker’s leadership PAC, said in a statement.