Obama Takes Sides in Wisconsin Labor Battle

“Some of what I’ve heard coming out of Wisconsin, where you’re just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain, generally seems like more of an assault on unions. I think it's very important for us to understand that public employees, they're our neighbors, they're our friends.”

-- President Obama in an interview with Milwaukee’s WTMJ

Wisconsin has been wracked with protests and work stoppages as government employees fight a fiscal austerity proposal from new Republican Gov. Scott Walker. Now, President Obama is weighing in against Walker and sticking up for government workers.

Walker’s plan would force state workers to cover half of their pension contributions and 13 percent of their own health insurance costs. Walker would strip government unions of the power to collectively bargain for higher wages unless approved by a public vote. The plan would also end compulsory dues payments for state workers.

Walker has said that if lawmakers don’t agree to his plan, he will be forced to lay off 6,000 of the state’s 170,000 workers.

The reaction has been intense in Madison, which is one of the great strongholds of organized labor and liberalism in the nation. Ten thousand labor activists jammed the state capitol, chanting and screaming at lawmakers. Schools have been shut down as unionized teachers conducted an organized “sick out” and brought their students to join the march against Walker.

New Jersey’s Chris Christie was the first and most famous part of the trend of governors getting tough with public workers, but the class of 2010 has quickly followed suit. New York Democrat Andrew Cuomo has been battling government workers over pay and benefits. In California, Democrat Jerry Brown is also asking for state workers to take pay cuts and has frozen hiring.

The cause for the nationwide crackdown is massive budget shortfalls threatening to crush state governments as they prepare spending plans for the next year. The collective shortfall for the coming fiscal year has been estimated at more than $120 billion.

Obama’s home state of Illinois has the worst budget problem in the nation, driven largely by massively under-funded pension plans for state workers. But Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn is bucking the trend of austerity.

Quinn, wearing an African Kente cloth in honor of black history month, laid out a $52.7 billion budget proposal Wednesday that would increase spending by $1.7 billion and borrow $8.75 billion with bonds backed by new taxes approved last month that double rates.

In Wisconsin, which took a sharp turn to the right in the 2010 elections, Walker has vowed to close his state’s $3.7 billion shortfall for the next two years by cutting costs and not raising taxes.

Obama also blasted Walker for rejecting a project to build a high-speed rail line as “short sighted” in his interview with the NBC affiliate in Milwaukee. But Obama was strongest in his defense of the protesting labor activists. Obama said that while it was necessary for state workers to perhaps make some “adjustments” he accused Walker of an “assault” on unions and praised government workers for their value to society.

The president echoes an attack from congressional Democrats who claim that federal budget cuts proposed by House Republicans would jeopardize federal jobs.

Government worker unions are crucial to Democratic hopes for 2012. Walker’s proposal is especially upsetting to the president’s party because it would no longer have the state government skim union dues from state paychecks to pass on to labor groups. Instead dues, which fund Democratic campaigns, would be paid on a voluntary basis.

Public union membership now outnumbers that of private unions and continues to grow.

As the spending battle plays out in Washington and across the country, Democrats will work hard to protect government unions from cuts.

Bahrain Crackdown Complicates Administration’s Position

"We thought that if we were there they wouldn't do this. We were wrong."

-- Bahrainian protester “Hussein” talking to the Wall Street Journal about a massive police raid that left at least two dead

The kingdom of Bahrain was an ideal pick for the headquarters of the U.S. Fifth Fleet almost 20 years ago. The petro-rich island nation of 1.2 million off the coast of Saudi Arabia was strategically located, peaceful and ruled by a moderate, Sunni royal family well disposed to American interests.

Now, the nation’s majority Shia population, with the support of their fellow Shia in Iran, is in revolt. The same uprisings that have wracked a series of U.S.-friendly governments in the region have taken hold in the capital of Manama.

On Thursday, though, the royal government did what other U.S. allies have not and sent armed police on a massive raid against protesters who were imitating their Egyptian counterparts in occupying the city’s central square.

At least two are dead and many more are injured in the wake of the raid by hundreds of police officers firing rubber bullets, tear gas and buckshot.

The tricky bit for the U.S. is this: The standard position of the Obama administration on the ongoing Middle East uprising is to call on all parties to be peaceful. But having the Iranian-backed Shia take over a strategic spot like Bahrain could only be bad news for the U.S.

Having now roused himself to the idea of being on “the right side of history” in the region, can Obama now watch U.S. allies continue to topple? Or, with huge strategic interests in the region, can he tacitly condone violence against protesters?

The administration is touting today a special report that the president commissioned in August to look at the likelihood of Middle East uprisings and ways the U.S. government could use unrest to facilitate a transition to democracy. But if the administration had even an inkling that so many stalwart American friends would be under attack, there were no apparent preparations made.

U.S. Agrees to Join U.N. Condemnation of Israel

“…the Security Council… expresses its strong opposition to any unilateral actions by any party, which cannot prejudge the outcome of negotiations and will not be recognized by the international community, and reaffirms, that it does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity, which is a serious obstacle to the peace process.”

-- Proposed resolution at the U.N. Security Council condemning Israeli settlements obtained by Foreign Policy magazine

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations has proposed for the first time ever to join a coalition of Arab and European nations in condemning Israel.

American Ambassador Susan Rice is casting the move as an effort to prevent a more harshly worded rebuke over Israeli settlements in sections claimed by Palestinians. But, the compromise measure backed by Rice would still be a sharp departure from decades of U.S. policy on Israel.

The U.S., like the other four permanent members of the Security Council, could veto any resolution against Israel, as has been the practice in the past.

But Rice, along with the rest of the Obama administration, is looking to force Israel to the negotiating table to discuss a peace treaty with the Palestinians. Backing the more tempered rebuke, which also finds some fault with the Palestinians, is seen as a way to pressure Israel to reengage in the stalled talks.

But this is a strange time to be doing anything with Israel. Egypt, the bulwark of peace between Jews and Arabs, is in turmoil. Iran’s regime seems to be radicalizing again and Islamists are on the march throughout the region. Rather than accepting U.S. pressure for more concessions to the Palestinians, the Israelis are of more of a mind to assert themselves.

The vote at the Security Council is set for Friday.

Obama to Meet With Democratic Donors/Tech CEOs

"The more your phone knows about you, the better."

-- Google CEO Eric Schmidt at a Barcelona mobile technology conference defending his company’s collection of personal data about its users

President Obama heads to San Francisco today to meet with corporate captains and Democratic donors Steve Jobs of Apple and Eric Schmidt of Google. Also in tow will be Obama’s favorite business booster, General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt.

The forum for tech leaders, which also includes Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, is the first time that Jobs has appeared publicly since he took a leave of absence from Apple because of health problems.

While the meeting is billed as being in support of the president’s green energy spending plan, it is just the start of an Obama effort to enlist the help of the tech sector for his 2012 reelection bid.

It shouldn’t be a heavy lift. The companies, particularly Google, have lots of issues pending with the Obama administration – Internet regulations, privacy rules, government contracts, etc. Plus, Jobs and Schmidt are both well known for their support for liberal causes.

But if Obama is going to raise the $1 billion he is trying to gather for his reelection bid, he will need the old guard to dig deep and the younger generation, like the so-far apolitical Zuckerberg, to get on the left side of the political ledger.

Pakistan Still Holding American Diplomat

"How can I issue any order when I do not have anything from the federal government regarding his diplomatic immunity?"

-- Chief Justice Ijaz Chaudhry of Pakistan’s Punjab province ordering a three-week delay in the case of an American embassy worker held on murder charges

The Pakistani government won a three-week delay in a hearing on the status of a security contractor at the U.S. embassy there, leaving hanging an American demand that he be released immediately on diplomatic immunity.

The country’s central government has limited sway in the Islamist-leaning province of Punjab, where the killing of two young Pakistani men by embassy worker Raymond Davis has created massive public outrage.

The U.S has demanded that Davis, a former Special Forces officer who claims he shot the men in self defense during a robbery attempt, be returned immediately or face serious diplomatic sanctions including the cancellation of a state visit for embattled President Ali Zardari next month.

The move today by a prosecutor from Zardari’s government suggests that Zardari may lack the clout to order Davis’ release but is working to try to gain concessions from local authorities.

If Zardari is in such a direly weakened situation as not to be able to answer the basic demand of his country’s most important ally, his value as an ally in the war in neighboring Afghanistan would be in dubious condition.