The Obameter

Walk with picketers when collective bargaining rights are threatened

“If American workers are being denied their right to organize when I'm in the White House, I will put on a comfortable pair of shoes and I will walk on that picket line with you as president of the United States."


President hasn't walked with Wisconsin protesters yet

On Nov. 3, 2007, Barack Obama -- then a senator running for president -- pledged to a crowd in Spartanburg, S.C., that he would watch out for unions and protect their collective bargaining rights.

"If American workers are being denied their right to organize when I'm in the White House, I will put on a comfortable pair of shoes and I will walk on that picket line with you as president of the United States,” Obama said.

We didn't notice this promise when we created our Obameter, but several readers have pointed it out to us because of the battle over collective bargaining rights for public employees in Wisconsin. So we are adding it to our database.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, has pursued limits on union power and faced fierce opposition by Democrats and thousands of protesters at the state capitol. Walker has argued that the state's budget deficits make it necessary to curb collective bargaining by public employees, while Democrats have accused Walker of union-busting.

Before adding the promise to our database, we considered whether Obama's comment was simply a rhetorical flourish. We concluded that it wasn't. The picket-line pledge was included among a number of other specific promises -- that he would, as president, "end the tax giveaways to companies that ship our jobs overseas,” and that he wouldn't "wait 10 years to raise the minimum wage -- I'll raise it to keep pace every single year.” And Obama's comment wasn't made off the cuff -- it was included in the pre-prepared remarks archived on the Obama campaign site.

So what has Obama done to carry out his promise in Wisconsin? It's clear that he hasn't literally suited up to walk a picket line or joined the demonstrations. Rather, his clearest action came in a Feb. 16, 2011, interview with a local Wisconsin television station.

"Some of what I've heard coming out of Wisconsin, where they're just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally, seems like more of an assault on unions," Obama told a reporter during a White House sit-down. "I think everybody's got to make some adjustments, but I think it's also important to recognize that public employees make enormous contributions to our states and our citizens."

The White House says the interview was previously scheduled, rather than set up specifically to allow Obama to address the dispute. And Obama doesn't appear to have made any other official comments or actions regarding the Wisconsin standoff.

The only other time he came close was during remarks to the nation's governors on Feb. 28, 2011, in which he did not cite Wisconsin specifically.

"I believe that everybody should be prepared to give up something in order to solve our budget challenges, and I think most public servants agree with that,” Obama said. "Democrats and Republicans agree with that. In fact, many public employees in your respective states have already agreed to cuts. But let me also say this: I don't think it does anybody any good when public employees are denigrated or vilified or their rights are infringed upon. We need to attract the best and the brightest to public service. These times demand it. We"re not going to attract the best teachers for our kids, for example, if they only make a fraction of what other professionals make. We're not going to convince the bravest Americans to put their lives on the line as police officers or firefighters if we don"t properly reward that bravery.”

The question of what Obama has done to live up his Spartanburg promise came up at the Feb. 24, 2011, White House briefing by White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.

A reporter said, "You've been asked about what he said about joining the picket lines back in 2007 when he said, ‘If American workers are being denied their right to organize when I"m in the White House, I will put on a comfortable pair of shoes and I will walk on that picket line with you as President of the United States.' Is he ready to put on a comfortable pair of shoes and fulfill that promise?”

Carney responded that Obama, "as president, has a -- obviously an ability to be heard when he speaks, and he spoke to the situation in Wisconsin and his views on it last week.  And I'll leave it at that.”

The reporter followed up, "And I know you weren't with him at the time, but do you think he meant that when he said it? Is that a promise?”

Carney said he thought a president "has different means of speaking out on issues and being heard, and clearly he did -- he made his viewpoints known on the situation in Wisconsin, the need for people to come together. He takes very seriously the fiscal situation that the states find themselves in -- some of the states -- and understands it because he understands it at the federal level. But he encourages the parties involved to come together and sacrifice together and reach a solution that serves the interests of all the people of the states, just like he's trying to do for the broader nation.”

So Carney provided no sign that Obama would be getting significantly more involved in the dispute any time soon -- much less that he would literally join the protesters on the ground in Wisconsin. Because the Wisconsin battle is ongoing -- and because similar fights have begun or may begin soon in other states -- we think it would be premature to call this a Promise Broken. But we do think that, other than the two brief comments, Obama has so far failed to live up to the promise he made in Spartanburg. So for now, we rate this promise Stalled.


Barack Obama, remarks in Spartanburg, S.C., Nov. 3, 2007

YouTube video of Obama"s remarks in Spartanburg, S.C., Nov. 3, 2007

Washington Post, "Obama joins Wisconsin's budget battle, opposing Republican anti-union bill,” Feb. 18, 2011

White House, press briefing by Press Secretary Jay Carney, Feb. 24, 2011

White House, remarks by the president and the vice president to the National Governors Association, Feb. 28, 2011

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, "WTMJ-TV reporter gets Obama one-on-one,” Feb. 16, 2011

E-mail interview with Bryan Kennedy, president of AFT-Wisconsin, March 3, 2011