President Barack Obama, after initially lending his support to organized labor, has stepped back from the fights spreading in state capitals from Wisconsin to Tennessee, leaving union officials divided about his tactics.
Democratic officials said that with Obama heading into battles over the federal budget, a plunge into the fray over public-sector collective bargaining could weaken his position as a deal-maker in Washington.
Obama is eager to occupy the political center, Democratic officials said, to help him forge a bipartisan deal on the nation's long-term finances that could strengthen his position heading into the 2012 election. Obama has already tacked to the center on taxes, on trade and by working to forge stronger ties with business leaders.
For their part, many union leaders worry that White House involvement could harm their case that the protests and political actions in the capitals of Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana are grassroots, organic movements.
"I don't think the president's involvement in making this a Republican and Democrat issue would be particularly helpful at this point," said Andy Stern, a former president of the Service Employees International Union.
But others say Obama, as the leader of the Democratic Party, should do more to help the labor movement, which provides money and grassroots organizing muscle for Democratic candidates and whose power is now threatened by Republican efforts to curtail collective bargaining rights.
"Everybody is looking to the president on this one," said Amy Dean, a labor activist and former AFL-CIO official in California. "The grassroots infrastructure of the Democratic Party is organized labor."
Rep. Raul Grijalva (D., Ariz.), a co-chairman of the House Progressive Caucus, agreed. "There's a bully pulpit there that the president has, and it needs to be used," he said. "I don't think you can turn the cheek on this one."