In The News
Obama has hardly been silent about Wisconsin protests
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Milwaukee Labor Press
Posted February 28, 2011
It’s a myth of our current mass media that the president of the United States has remained mum on what is happening in Wisconsin except for one brief interview weeks before the biggest protests to a WTMJ-TV reporter in Milwaukee. From that one, the right wing media played up his opening comments about how we all need to tighten our belts and the left-wing emphasized his ending comment that Gov. Scott Walker’s bill seemed more like an assault on unions than a budget fix.
Obama, at a time when he is pushing for fiscal austerity and has himself frozen federal wages, clearly does not want to be too aggressive on this point, or take sides so strongly that he becomes a distraction from the genuine outpouring from the streets taking place in Wisconsin. If a president gets physically involved in anything, that sucks the air out of the room, and he is smart enough to know that.
But it is a media fabrication that he has remained silent since. In typical fashion, he has remained polite and focused on fiscal austerity and deficit repair --- a master of being indirect and pointed at the same time.
As one DC pundit told me, “He’s not going to become the sound-bite simpleton for marching with unions that the cable news heads wants, nor as outspoken as the liberals clearly want. He’s waiting for the public to see the issue more clearly without giving up his principles.”
But when the occasion presents itself, Obama makes his comments count, most openly to the media at the bipartisan gathering of the nation’s governors in D.C. the last weekend in February. That was the height of protest in Wisconsin, as Obama well knew – so amid all the congeniality and conviviality of the White House reception and address to them came the perfect moments for some sharp bitebacks.
It came after chuckles from Vice President Joe Biden’s pointed reminder that all the governors from both parties, regardless of political stance, had clearly loved the federal stimulus help for their states, with Biden assuring them that though the stimulus had come to an end, the federal government stood ready to be an active helpful partner if Congress allows.
Obama was all about such cooperation in his remarks:
“So, yes, we need a conversation about pensions and Medicare and Medicaid and other promises that we’ve made as a nation. And those will be tough conversations, but necessary conservations. As we make these decisions about our budget going forward, though, I believe that everyone should be at the table and that the concept of shared sacrifice should prevail.”
But you’d have to be a simpleton not to miss the targets of his next remarks, including the Wisconsin governor:
“But let me also say this: I don’t think it does anybody any good when public employees are denigrated or vilified or their rights are infringed upon. We need to attract the best and the brightest to public service. These times demand it. We’re not going to attract the best teachers for our kids, for example, if they only make a fraction of what other professionals make. We’re not going to convince the bravest Americans to put their lives on the line as police officers or firefighters if we don’t properly reward that bravery.
“If all the pain is borne by only one group -- whether it’s workers, or seniors, or the poor -- while the wealthiest among us get to keep or get more tax breaks, we’re not doing the right thing. I think that’s something that Democrats and Republicans should be able to agree on.
“Now, as we begin to get our budgets under control, the other thing we can’t do is sacrifice our future. Even as we cut back on those things that don’t add to growth or opportunity for our people, we have to keep investing in those things that are absolutely necessary to America’s success -- education, innovation, infrastructure.”
Walker understood who the comments were aimed at (the president didn't hide behind a Skype phone call as the David Koch prankster did) and again shot erroneously from the hip in self-defense. But then, you could hardly blame him for repeating the canard that had also been trotted out by NBC “Meet the Press” host Dick Gregory and went unchallenged in initial media reports by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and other media outlets.
Sniffed Walker, “I'm sure the president knows that most federal employees do not have collective bargaining for wages and benefits.”
Unmentioned were that federal employees, who often do have other bargaining rights that Walker would take away, don’t bargain for wages and benefits because those are mandated by federal legislation, at a level of competence that I suspect state employees would gladly accept if Walker were to guarantee in the same fashion. These are the health benefits that members of Congress can access, conditioned on income and clearly the envy of average citizens during the health care debate. Surely Wisconsin public workers would like Walker to offer that – they would be guaranteed without bargaining! And wages of all public workers can be frozen in necessity, as Obama had done, without destroying the fabric of mutual exchange, which has been hard won at the federal level, as those unions would quickly share if the press simply asked.
But again, the unknowing and lazy are blind-sided by partisan soundbites.
There was a regrettable absence at the D.C. gatherings – it was empty Walker, busy handling the uproar in Wisconsin, or trying to spin the media in his favor. That robbed not just protesters but governors in D.C. from opportunities they clearly wanted, opponents to chastise him and members of his own party to suggest it was time for Walker to pull in his horns. The GOP can also read the polls -- that's why the TV ads supporting Walker have become so shrill.
Walker’s absence frustrated several hundred marching unionists who paraded in front of a non-union downtown D.C. hotel where the governors met, as reported by Mark Gruenberg of the national Press Associates Inc.
The unionists came for the third D.C. demonstration in five days against Walker’s policies, which had produced mass protests and sit-ins at the Wisconsin State Capitol. In D.C. on February 26, the sympathy protest drew several thousand participants captured on Internet video and media photography. It was far more than unions, though you could find present AFSCME, the National Education Association and SEIU – - but also Office and Professional Employees, the Laborers, the Operating Engineers, the Sheet Metal Workers, the Amalgamated Transit Union, NATCA, UFCW, The Newspaper Guild, CWA, the National Writers Union, and even the Masters, Mates & Pilots.
A spokesman for the gubernatorial colleagues – a majority of whom are Republicans – made the quiet observation that not many inside the hotel follow Walker. “Not all governors are the same: We rely on you, on labor, on the ability to collectively bargain, which is a basic human right in a democracy,” said Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin.
“Keep on keeping on.”