Labor Leaders: Obama Needs to Draw Sharper Contrast With GOP

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After Democrats' special-election losses, the president's union backers want him to drive a more aggressive message

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Organized labor officials reacted to Democratic losses in Tuesday's special elections by making a demand of President Obama: Furnish voters with a sharper contrast between his job-creation efforts and those of congressional Republicans or risk swallowing the blame for Washington's dysfunction.

Union leaders say the Democratic rank-and-file apathy evident in the humiliating loss in New York City's 9th District and the 22-point blowout in Nevada's 2nd District should spur Obama to pursue more aggressively populist talking points like arguing that oil and gas subsidies cost jobs for public-school teachers.

The leaders say Obama should more openly lobby Congress's special deficit-reduction committee for softer spending cuts and targeted tax-code reform. And they want the president to shed the compromise mantle that polls well with voters, often at the expense of congressional Democrats' priorities.

Former Service Employees International Union president Andy Stern said evidence of labor apathy in both New York and Nevada could presage electoral trouble for Obama and Democrats if the party fails to draw back voters, particularly the middle class, who have grown disillusioned with job-growth efforts.

"When voters are making a statement ... then there's no political machine in the world that can overcome six or eight percentage points," Stern said.

"The problem is, at some point, when you have moments like this--whether it's unions or tea party--eight percentage points is way too big to have turnout and more marginal things make a difference," Stern said. "As much as the Democrats want to tone down the question of whether this is a trend, and I think it's too early to tell, it wouldn't make me sleep very well at night."

Stern said Obama had made progress in making his case to voters, but needs to press harder in battles with a GOP Congress that has proved effective in defying him. Referencing Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's remark last year that "the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president," Stern said, "Given that Mitch McConnell, the last standing honest man in town, has said clearly the one job he cares about is changing the president's, I think they've been on a relentless set of policies that the one person that loses their job next year is the president, even if millions of Americans have to share in the pain."

Labor officials say Democrats need to work harder to point to GOP maneuvering on the debt ceiling, the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill, and the surface-transportation package as evidence that Republicans are resistant to job-creating measures. If Obama does not strenuously point that out, they said, he can easily be lumped in as part of the problem.

"The is fact that there are not sufficiently clear lines being drawn in the minds of voters on the issue of jobs. Election results can be random to bad for Democrats until they hammer a consistent, strong message on jobs," said Jeff Hauser, an AFL-CIO spokesman. "We need to do more to turn away from the Bush-era policies of taxing the rich less and regulating less and calling that a jobs package."

Union officials have long said Obama has proved too easily lured into compromising with Republicans. They point to last year's extension of the Bush tax cuts, recurring spending cuts, and a willingness to deal on entitlement reform.

John Campbell, a longtime steelworker and former political director of the state United Steelworkers, said, "Democrats haven't been Democrats. I think the president's jobs proposal doesn't go far enough. The president's been too willing to compromise. And core values that support labor and these trade deals with no protections--they destroy jobs here more than they create them."

Campbell acknowledged that Obama faces tough bargaining dynamics among uncompromising congressional Republicans, who are themselves dealing with a restive party base that has proved willing to take out incumbents whose ideology is seen as insufficiently conservative.

"If the president can't go ahead and forge a program that can get implemented, then the blame surely has to rest with the Republicans and the tea party, and they have to be held accountable for that," Campbell said. "He has yielded and yielded and yielded, and what has it given us?"

Campbell said the sustained high unemployment figures were leading to disengagement among voters who were angered that both the administration and Congress had not done "anything to ease the burdens of working people."

"I'm pissed off, you know, and I'm almost ready to disengage," he said. "But the stakes are too high."

Image credit: Max Whittaker/Reuters

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Jim O'Sullivan is chief analyst for National Journal Daily.

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