James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Wisconsinites determined, Obama is AWOL

When Barack Obama was campaigning in 2008, he said in a televised speech that if ever the rights of organized labor came under attack while he was president “I'll put on a pair of comfortable shoes and walk right beside you.”

Add one more to the long, long list of promises Obama has broken.

Despite at least one serious offer from a state-level politician to buy him new walking shoes if he'd just show up, the president has been conspicuously absent in Wisconsin, in Ohio, in Michigan, in New Jersey, Florida and other states where far-right businessmen and the Republican Party have mounted heavily funded attacks in the class war.

Wherever organized labor and the middle class are under serious attack, that's where Obama (aka The Artful Dodger) isn't. Not only won't he go to where the fights are, he won't even talk about them.

His one public comment on the major battle underway for the past month in Wisconsin was a mumbled observation that the actions of the right wingers who control the Wisconsin Legislature “sound like an attack on unions.”

I don't know who the president listens to these days, and I can only speculate on his reasons for refusing to join a fray that so obviously calls for his deep involvement on behalf of the people who are the core of his 2008 support. My guess is that it goes like this: “Our corporate funders will be annoyed, or worse, if you back the unions, and you don't have to worry about losing the votes because the unions and liberals have nowhere else to go.”

Many of Obama's advisers, including Rahm Emanuel (now Chicago's burden), openly made such statements in the past, so it's pretty safe to assume that is still their thinking.

After attending the massive rally at the Wisconsin Capitol Saturday, and a much smaller one in Hudson, Wis., Sunday, I have reason to think the presidential advisers are wrong.

The right wingers who slid into control of that state's government in 2010 because of liberal voter apathy – apathy at least in part resulting from Obama's absence from battles over issues of prime importance to liberals -- almost certainly are going to be thrown out. Recall efforts against Republican lawmakers have generated almost incredible enthusiasm, and some of them will succeed, while counter efforts by the far right seem certain to fail. And there is no way the extremists will remain in the majority in the Legislature after the next general election.

But there is reason to think Obama, who won Wisconsin in 2008, may not hold it in 2012.

Neither he nor the national Democratic Party was popular with people I talked to Saturday and Sunday.

The 14 Democratic state senators who left the state and stayed away for three weeks in order to block the Republican plan to take away the bargaining rights of public employee unions are heroes on a grand scale. The depth of gratitude and admiration directed toward the “Fabulous 14” at the Capitol Saturday put them in the category of rock stars, World Series winners, Stanley Cup champions, Super Bowl winners and war heroes – combined.

You had to be there to fully appreciate the power of those feelings.

But, again, they don't translate to feelings for the president or Congressional leaders.

There is a great deal the corporate “news” media has not told the American public about what is happening in Wisconsin – and, undoubtedly, all the other states where the middle class is under direct big-money assault.

With the one exception of Ed Schultz on MSNBC, in a broadcast Monday evening (March 14), there has been little or no mention of Obama's absence, and no reporting on the feelings, ranging from apparent indifference to antipathy, about Obama and the national Democrats among the union members, farmers and others who have been fighting so hard for their rights in Wisconsin.

Most of the corporate media continue to present the story of Wisconsin based on the Republican claim that the gutting of union rights was done to “cut costs” and save the state from a “budget crisis.”

In fact, and this should be regularly reported, the taking of collective bargain rights from public employee unions doesn't save the state any countable money. And, anyway, the plain fact is that Wisconsin is not in a “budget crisis.”

Truthfully, the state is in pretty good financial shape. The “terrible” deficit Gov. Scott Walker and the legislative Republicans keep talking about exists only because they gave very rich Wisconsinites and corporations a big tax cut just days before mounting their attack on unions. The amount of state revenue lost because of those uncalled-for tax breaks almost exactly equals the amount of that “terrible” deficit.

In other words, the Republicans created the deficit just days before they started screaming about how awful it is. CBS and CNN and my local birdcage liner and even the New York Times don't seem to want to tell you that.

The corporate press just won't report that, though it should be in every story in which Republicans are quoted bemoaning the supposed deficit.

And there has been almost no reporting in other media about a statement made by Republican State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald on Fox “News” March 9.

Fitzgerald, who has made a number of true but arrogant statements, admitted on Fox that what he and his fellow Republicans did by taking away union bargaining rights had little to do with economics and everything to do with destroying the unions' political power.

“We fixed it so the money won't be there” for unions to help fund the opponents of Republicans in future elections, and especially in the 2012 presidential election, Fitzgerald boasted.

It wasn't until after my wife and I left the big rally late Saturday afternoon that some of the thoughts presented here actually hit me. Especially, I had not given much thought to where Obama stood – or didn't stand – in the picture, or at least how he might stand with the people of Wisconsin who are fighting for their economic survival.

Then, suddenly, it seemed shocking that a sitting Democratic president had so entirely distanced himself from literal struggle for survival affecting millions of his key voters. It was, and is, genuinely bizarre that neither the president nor Democratic Congressional leadership is even remotely involved.

The rally in Madison was a revelation in another way: I'd expected enthusiasm, and anger, from the crowd, but I have experienced nothing to compare with the emotions and determination in that mass of people since a giant antiwar rally in the early 1970s.

Anger against the right wing extremists in Madison was universal and powerful, and yet there was – Glenn Beck and other dribbling idiots to the contrary – not the slightest sense that anyone was going to get out of control. There was no danger, no chance that anyone was going to smash windows or throw things. The anger was entirely channeled toward useful action, especially the recall efforts and elections between now and November 2012.

Some of the guys from the trades, men wearing jackets or badges proclaiming their membership in an operating engineers' union or the Teamsters, seemed a bit nonplussed at finding themselves on the same side, cheering and occasionally booing the same things, as members of nurses' and teachers' unions and people looking like leftover 1975 hippies, but then I saw three or four literally shrug and smile and get into it. The trades guys were especially courteous to the teachers.

It was a different story Sunday in Hudson, where 250 to 300 people gathered on a bridge over Hwy. I94 to hold signs and wave at drivers on the freeway and crossing the bridge on the local road.

The number in Hudson wasn't so intimidating, and some drivers felt free to show their disdain for, and, in a few cases, even hatred for the demonstrators.

Something less than half the drivers crossing the bridge during the time I was there simply ignored us, looking straight ahead. That's less of such behavior than one usually sees at demonstrations.

The number of people who honked and waved and gave us thumbs-up signs surprised me. It was a much higher percentage than I've ever seen before during a demonstration of any kind.

But, of course, there also were those who despised us, and they were interesting. Almost all were obviously relatively low income, driving beaters, clothes by Wal-Mart. (Sorry, but it's true.) I saw maybe a dozen people flash us the middle finger, and of those, about nine were women. Men who didn't like us, many of them driving elderly pickup trucks, generally just gave us a thumbs-down. Guys in newer pickups tended to turn the thumb up, and honk and smile.

One man sticks in my brain. He was stopped on the bridge, waiting for the traffic light to change. He was directly opposite me. He was with a woman, and he had a boy of about 9 in the back seat. The boy continually gave us the thumbs-down sign. The man shouted at us, without opening his window, and his face grew angrier and angrier. Just before the traffic began to move, he fully faced the window and shook both fists at us, even pounded them against his window. Then he pointed the index fingers of both hands at his temples – trying to tell us, I finally figured out, that we were crazy, or that we should learn to think or something like that.

That guy, in a beat-up car about 15 years old, with the general appearance of someone who maybe makes $9 an hour, was enraged with people who are fighting for the rights of working people and for the survival of democracy. There's your real Tea Party, folks.

But he's very much in the minority these days, and the only thing to do is ignore him and get on with the fight where it counts.