Published December 11, 2012
“What they're really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money.”
-- President Obama speaking at a rally in Detroit.
Many schools in Michigan will have to shut down today because teachers are using sick days to attend a massive labor protest in the state capital of Lansing. The state police are getting out the riot gear and lawmakers are preparing for ugly confrontations.
And when the unions lay siege to the statehouse, they will be doing it with the encouragement of the president of the United States, who turned what was billed as a speech on the need to extend tax rates for middle-class earners into a rally for Michigan labor unions.
While Republicans in Washington are talking about how much to raise taxes in order to coax Obama into a broader budget deal, Obama is out firing up crowds ahead of a labor march.
At a certain point, Republican lawmakers might be forgiven for thinking that the president is not so desperate for bipartisanship and common ground as has been suggested.
The president’s decision to jump into Michigan’s fight shows a lot about where his head is going into his second term. As New York Times White House scribe Helene Cooper, one of the best on the beat, said on “Meet the Press”: “They are so much cockier right now at the White House than they were a year and a half ago when they were doing this.”
In 2011 when Wisconsin was gripped by a nasty battle between government worker unions and newly elected statehouse Republicans, Obama took plenty of heat from liberals for mostly standing silent.
Obama not only declined to join the fray, but ahead of the June 2012 election aimed at punishing Republican Gov. Scott Walker for his law stripping government worker unions of the power to strike, Obama declined to help Democrats oust Walker.
Obama famously flew over the state just ahead of the recall vote as he jumped between fundraisers for his own re-election campaign. Liberals lamented that Obama had forgotten his campaign promise to “walk on that picket line with you as president of the United States of America” whenever collective bargaining power was under threat.
Obama made a few remarks about the Wisconsin law in interviews, but mostly steered clear of the subject, with the White House calling it a “Wisconsin issue.”
But on Monday, Obama dived headlong into a labor dispute in Michigan, even though the stakes for his union allies in the state appear to be lower. In Wisconsin it was about ending collective bargaining power for government workers. In Michigan, the fight is over so-called “right to work” legislation that would allow individual workers to opt out of union membership.
Twenty four states already have similar laws. Unions hate the idea because it means that they will no longer get automatic dues payments from workers who opt out. Labor groups refer to these workers as “free riders” who they accuse of enjoying the benefits obtained in contract negotiations without paying to support the union.
But this is a far-less ideologically controversial proposition than what was offered in Wisconsin. One version of the Michigan law under consideration would apply to government workers, allowing them to opt out of state worker unions, but nothing on collective bargaining.
But the labor movement that dominated 20th century America found its fullest flower in Michigan with the United Auto Workers, so there’s an emotional attachment here for the left. Seeing union power and pelf rolled back in Walter Reuther’s Detroit would be a serious psychic blow for a movement that has been staggering for decades.
When labor unions failed in November to amend the state constitution to enshrine the power of collective bargaining for state workers in the Michigan constitution, state Republicans saw their opportunity.
Michigan Republicans went after the lifeblood of the labor movement and, by extension, the Democratic Party: mandatory union dues payments and the response has been fearsome.
Obama’s promise to his political base, and once embarrassingly to the Putin regime in Russia, is that after his final election he would be free to govern as he wanted. What you saw in Michigan on Monday was a prime example of that new flexibility.
Ahead of his election, Obama marooned Wisconsin labor groups and Democrats and even stood silent on a teacher strike in his hometown. After his election, Obama is diving in.
Imagine Obama pre-election encouraging a labor demonstration that will leave thousands of swing-state parents in the lurch as teachers catch the blue flu. Imagine Obama speaking so forcefully against right-to-work laws on the books and with popular support in swing states Nevada, Iowa, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida.
Republicans in Washington are scourging themselves, and practically begging Obama to make a deal that allows them to raise taxes on top earners in exchange for future concessions on entitlements. This assumes that Obama is interested in some kind of grand bargain.
While the GOP is negotiating with itself over how much to raise taxes, the president is out on the campaign trail hammering away. Those centrist pundits and anxious Republicans suggesting that Obama just wants a win on tax rates and then can be enticed into a bigger deal are apparently not listening and weren’t listening when Obama talked about his plans for a second term.
Since re-election Obama has shown no hints of bipartisanship beyond suggesting that it was a good thing for Republicans to give him what he wants on taxes. But there is no evidence to suggest that Obama plans to govern as a pragmatic centrist in a second term and plenty of evidence that he plans to govern from the left, now being beyond the grasp of the electorate.
Republicans know that whatever happens in the next few months – cliff dive or no cliff dive – will be unpleasant for the country and that they will get the blame. A grim prospect for the party, perhaps, but the more the president does to show his second-term swagger the more readily Republicans can excuse themselves from their current mother-may-I-raise-taxes-this-much approach.
And Now, A Word From Charles
“I don't think there has never been war in our history where a president speaks less about and garners less support of behalf of real, ongoing operation where Americans are dying. If that is our mission, which is minimal -- getting out -- why are the brave soldiers dying?”
-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com. Catch Chris Live online daily at 11:30amET at http:live.foxnews.com.