Sitting Out

The Downside of Obama’s Decision to Skip Wisconsin

The president’s decision to steer clear of the contentious recall battle in Wisconsin sends a bad signal to his base. Eric Alterman on the downside of staying above the fray. Plus, Ben Jacobs on five things to watch in Wisconsin.

Jeffrey Phelps / AP Photos

It’s not every day that Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, speaks for Wisconsin Democrats, but he almost certainly did this weekend when, on the subject of Barack Obama, he wondered aloud: “He couldn’t drive 15 miles and show his face here?” Should Governor Scott Walker win his recall fight Tuesday, Priebus accurately added, “There are going to be a lot of Democrats in Wisconsin who are going to be pretty disappointed with their president who did not come in and help out.”

Bill Clinton came by to gin up the troops, but ex-senator Russ Feingold, a hero to populist Democrats, echoed Priebus’s comments as politely as he could. Cheering Clinton, he responded that it would be nice if Barack Obama could make a “few more comments between now and the election. I'm not unhappy about it, but I'm hoping he will weigh in a little more … between now and Tuesday."

On the day before the big vote, Governor Walker leads Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett by just three points, and the gap was shrinking. Walker has enjoyed visits from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, among others. But the White House has kept its distance.

Knowing nothing about Barack Obama, one might initially find this reticence difficult to understand. After all, the battle against Walker is not just a Democratic/Republican fight; it is a fight for the survival of public unions, who just happen to be the most important source of Democratic Party foot-soldiers in national elections and one of the party’s few sources of significant amounts of campaign funds. Recall that this fight began back in February 2011 when Walker, the newly elected Tea Party/Republican governor of the state—and personal favorite of the Koch brothers—demanded not only that public employees contribute more for their health insurance and pension benefits, but most significantly forfeit their right to bargain collectively. Massive protests ensued with as many as 100,000 crowding Daley Plaza. Fourteen Senate Democrats fled the state to try and prevent the legislation from passing. But Walker had votes and within a month, the law was passed, setting the stage for recall petitions and Tuesday’s vote—which would be only the third recall of a sitting governor in American history.

The stakes, as recognized by both sides, are considerable. And Walker, whose electoral success has always been built on mountain-size loads of out-of-state cash, has enjoyed a massive advantage vis-à-vis his challenger. In official funds, he’s beaten Barrett by an estimated figure of more than seven-to-one, but the grand total of spending is at least $63.5 million when one includes independent groups. There too, Walker enjoys a big edge, as his top three donors combined gave more than challenger Barrett’s campaign raised in its entirety. In fact, however, it’s rather difficult to discern just how much money is being poured into the state as the Citizens United case undid much of Wisconsin’s disclosure law. “Because corporate and labor expenditures were previously illegal, there were no disclosure laws to regulate their spending,” explained Mike McCabe, who runs the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. “There’s been a precipitous drop off in transparency.” According to the Campaign, Walker’s team is responsible for more than $16 million of the $22 million spent by outside groups.

So why has Barack Obama made himself so scarce when Democrats have succeeded fighting a tight race while being so persistently and convincingly outspent? According to many pundits, he simply expects Walker to win and would rather not be associated too closely with a losing campaign. Another likely explanation, however, is that Obama doesn’t like to associate himself with such a harshly fought campaign. He needs the votes of not only of moderate voters, but also of people only moderately interested in voting. With public unions fighting for their lives, and corporate and conservative money pouring in to destroy them, Wisconsin is as polarized as any state in America. This is not the kind of image that Obama wishes to communicate. Moreover as his recent moves in the direction of gay marriage and apparent willingness to bargain away not only much of Medicare but also a significant chunk of the legacy of the New Deal and Great Society programs demonstrates, Obama sees the future of the party resting on the backs of social and suburban liberals, rather than the working-class types who have been manning (and womaning) the picket lines against Walker. The president showed a lack of enthusiasm for organized labor’s single most important priority—the so-called “card check” legislation that would have helped with organizing, received almost no serious support even when the Democrats (ostensibly) controlled both houses of Congress.

But in failing to dance with the ones that “brung him,” Obama is playing a dangerous game. Turning out the base, winning back small contributors, and engaging volunteers will be infinitely more difficult for a president who has disappointed so many of his most devoted supporters in 2008. Sure, they are going to vote for him. But in a post-Citizens United world, as Wisconsin demonstrates better than anywhere, Republicans will enjoy a massive spending advantage in both advertising and organizing efforts this year. A victory for Walker will not only give them the feeling of wind at their back, it will help cement a media narrative that puts such efforts at the center of the story of why Mitt Romney is, in this economic and political environment, a good bet for November. Had Obama thrown himself into the race on the side of the team that fought so hard for him, supporters, opponents and reporters would all understand that this is a candidate who intends to do all he can in this fight and to risk whatever it takes.

Instead he chose to make the cautious, tempered decision to remain above the fray and hope things drop his way. Looking back on the past four years, it does not appear a terribly promising strategy.