WASHINGTON -- The ongoing protests surrounding an anti-union measure in Wisconsin has placed the president and the Democratic Party in a yet another delicate dance with the labor community.
Demonstrations against a bill that would effectively end collective bargaining for many unions would, on the surface, seem like a political lay-up for a Democratic administration. Unions represent the base of the party. And a show of solidarity with those walking the streets of Madison would go a long way toward soothing the much-discussed tensions between unions and the White House.
On Thursday evening, one top labor activist, speaking on the condition of anonymity (for fear of jinxing the administration's engagement), said he thought Wisconsin would be a "turning point" in bringing the two factions together.
But for every two steps forward the president has taken, there is one step back. On Wednesday, Obama first weighed in on the debate warning against the vilification of public employees during an interview with a Wisconsin television station -- a statement that Gerald McEntee, the President of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, called "terrific."
The next day, the president's campaign arm, Organizing for America, announced that it was engaging in the Wisconsin saga as well: organizing buses, running phone banks, and urging supporters to call up state legislators. News of the entrée, broken in Politico, was passed around under the header, "DNC playing role in Wisconsin protests."
By Friday, it was time for clarification as the committee insisted that its role was "being exaggerated."
"This is a grassroots story not a Washington one," DNC spokesman Hari Sevugan said in a statement. "Our volunteers in Wisconsin were getting involved and asked us to let others in the state know what was happening. 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."
In actuality, the latter statement was always closer to reality than the former. OFA was supportive of the protests. But it was hardly an organizing force with labor, students, and activists spurring somewhat-organic demonstrations.
And yet, the optics were telling. As the DNC refined its position, the RNC rushed to fill the void. Newly elected chair Reince Priebus, a Wisconsin native, cheered on Republican lawmakers and launched a massive robocall campaign targeting Democrats.
It was more chutzpah than hubris. At the same time the RNC was unveiling its plans, former Gov. Jeb Bush was pontifi-tweeting about how "troubling" it was "that the president and his political organization" were getting involved in the debate.
At that point, however, Wisconsin had become a proxy war for the philosophical battles of Washington; and, as such, the president's participation in the process -- or lack thereof -- was being closely studied for broader meaning.
Any additional statement of solidarity, labor activists stressed, would not only lift the spirits of the protesters, it would solidify a base vote that has, at times, seemed unenthused with the current administration.
"I think that people understand that when attacked you must fight back and they are energized by that. And I think the lesson of what people will learn from this is that moving forward you have to stay engaged and keep fighting. And we will see that take place in 2012 in the electoral scene as well," said Karen Ackerman, the political director of the AFL-CIO. "People are reminded that there are consequences to elections, that it is important who gets elected."
So far, the president's engagement has been cheered. "We think to come out publicly and say, as far as he is concerned, that this seems to be an attack on public unions ... it was a wonderful statement he made," said McEntee.
That good will, however, be tested in the weeks ahead, as a government shut down in Madison and similar protests elsewhere seem likely to consume more of the president's attention and time. On Friday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney reiterated the president's concern about the underlying objectives of the anti-union legislation. But aides to Obama declined to say whether he would visit Wisconsin in the week ahead, despite protesters' pining for a visit.
One top Republican strategist described the situation best, when he noted the debate has allowed labor and the president -- never really trusting of one another -- a limited window in which to patch things up.
"Labor unions and the White House might not be in bed with each other, but they're definitely having make-up sex right now," the strategist emailed. "Maybe [things will improve] in the short term, but they're already ticked at him, and there isn't a single union hotel in Charlotte [the site of the 2012 convention.]"