President Obama is interrupting his long vacation to bus across the battleground states of the Midwest this week, on an officially “non-political” journey that his aides obviously hope will renew a connection with the people who overwhelmingly elected him president in 2008. It is an essential endeavor, as Obama’s uncertain tenure has frustrated voters who once saw him as a transformational leader but now wonder whether there is a point to his presidency.
The disconnect between Obama and his base has grown more profound this year, as he has focused on the compromises of Washington while working people in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and other states have engaged in “Which side are you on?” fights against a Republican austerity agenda that threatens the very underpinnings of civil society and democratic experiment.
Obama’s absence from the scene has raised questions about how the man who once promised to march with workers in defense of collective bargaining rights (“If American workers are being denied their right to organize and collectively bargain when I’m in the White House, I will put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself, I’ll will walk on that picket line with you as president of the United States of America. Because workers deserve to know that somebody is standing in their corner.”) could remain so distant from the struggles that matter most.
Nothing summed up the disconnection between Obama and the base so thoroughly as White House spokesman Jay Carney’s response to a question about last week’s Wisconsin recall elections. Even as the New York Times hailed the recall results as an “impressive” signal regarding voter opposition to unionbusting, while arguing that “voters around the country who oppose the widespread efforts to undermine public unions—largely financed by corporate interests—should draw strength from Tuesday’s success,” Carney said he did not know if Obama was paying attention.
Obama’s bus trip this week will bring him to an Iowa town within twenty miles of the Wisconsin border on Tuesday. That’s the same day that two Wisconsin Democratic state senators who sided with labor last winter face recalls mounted by the Republican Party and national conservative groups.
But Obama’s team has made no announcement of plans to cross the line into the battleground state.
Contrast Obama’s approach with that of the president who defined the modern Democratic Party.
Seventy-seven years to the day before Wisconsin’s recall voting, Roosevelt appeared at an August 9, 1934, rally in Green Bay.
Like Obama, FDR had been elected on a promise of “hope” and “change.”
Like Obama, FDR had tried with mixed success to deliver on that promise.
The thirty-second president went to Green Bay to explain to a crowd of sympathetic but worried Wisconsinites that the economic battles of the moment needed to be seen in the perspective of the great American contest between a privileged few that engaged in the “private means of exploitation” and the great many that had “waged a long and bitter fight for [their] rights.”