the national interest

Obama Picks a Labor Fight With Scott Walker

Photo: Getty Images

Two days ago, report Edward-Isaac Dovere and Sarah Wheaton, President Obama organized a conference call for former advisers. The president informed them that securing the administration’s legacy requires electing a successor (i.e., Hillary Clinton) who will cement rather than roll back his accomplishments. “Much in the same way that the Reagan Revolution required Bush Senior” to cement the legacy of a truly transformative president, Obama reportedly said, “we’ve got to make sure that we’re laying the foundation … less for our benefit and more to create the political climate going into the next election so the agenda that we’ve set continues.” Meanwhile, today Obama is heading to Madison, Wisconsin, to unveil his administration’s new rule to make overtime available to 5 million new Americans earning up to $50,000 a year. “The contrast between our approach on economic issues and the governor’s is emblematic of the contrast between the president and the Republican Party at large,” an aide tells Dovere.

It is possible that these two stories have nothing to do with each other. But it’s also possible they have everything to do with each other.

Obama’s executive order is the latest, and probably last, functional expression of his belief that the diminishing bargaining power of the workforce has played a major role in the struggles of the middle-class over the last generation. That belief once defined the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, but it has gained increasing support from the centrist wing as well. A report earlier this year from the Center on Inclusive Prosperity, co-chaired by Lawrence Summers, emphasized the importance of strengthening labor in general, and urged a higher overtime threshold in particular. Summers is a former economic advisor to the Clinton administration and to Obama, and a symbol of pro-business centrism. His endorsement culminates an important convergence of thought between the Democratic Party’s two wings.

The Republican Party stands totally opposed to this entire line of thought, and nobody symbolizes that opposition more than Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin. Walker has singularly embodied the conservative view that prosperity requires crushing labor’s bargaining power, a conviction he has followed with a determination and success that has made him the darling of the Koch brothers and other elements of the Republican fund-raising base.

But the donor base has its worries about Walker. They may appreciate his slavish adherence to their economic ideology, but they worry about his nearly as slavish adherence to the Republican base’s social ideology. Walker has emitted restrictionist noises on immigration and endorsed a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. The Republican donor class may be willing to support politicians who endorse those views if that’s what’s needed to elect politicians who can implement their economic program, but they are not willing to sacrifice electability to do so. And Republican strategists, report Maggie Haberman and Jonathan Martin, increasingly fear that Walker is crafting a profile helpful in a primary that will leave him vulnerable in a general election campaign.

The Obama administration is hardly hiding the political undertones of their announcement. The location and subject matter of the president’s speech are obviously designed to draw maximum ideological contrast between himself and Walker. The likely effect of such a trip will surely be to elevate Walker’s profile as the anti-Obama, rallying conservatives to his side, thus boosting his prospects of winning the nomination — and, if you share the horse-race analysis of fretful GOP consultants, elevating Clinton’s chances of winning in 2016. Maybe that isn’t an accident.