Hoping to mend strained relations with the labor community, President Obama spoke to the AFL-CIO Executive Council on Wednesday, urging attendees to recognize that his agenda is far more in line with their interests than the Republican alternative.
"I know you are talking to a lot of your locals, I'm sure they are feeling like, 'Boy, change is not happening fast enough'," Obama said, speaking at a gathering at the Washington Convention Center. "They are frustrated. They have every right to be frustrated."
"But you have to remind them for the next three months: this election is a choice," he added. "You have these folks who drove America's economy into a ditch. And for the last 20 months we put on our boots and we got into the mud and we have been shoving that car out of the ditch, inch by inch, and they have been standing on the side the whole time watching, telling us 'No, you're not pushing hard enough, you're not doing it the right way,' not lifting a finger to help. And now we finally get that car [out of the ditch]... we are about to drive and they say they want the keys back. Well, you can't have the keys."
The president was greeted with standing applause for that line, a now common election-theme contrast. But it was his more substantive remarks that drew the strongest approval from the crowd of roughly 200 union officials, aides and progressives. Obama spoke admirably about the role that unions play in the lives of workers, quoting FDR saying that if he were a laborer and not president, he'd have joined a union himself. The president talked about structuring and passing fair trade agreements, the need for more aid and stimulus to states and his desire to stop sending government money to union-busting companies. His most welcomed line focused on the Employee Free Choice Act -- the stalled-in-the-Senate measure that would make it easier for workers to form unions.
"We are going to keep on fighting to pass the Employee Free Choice Act," he said at one point. "Getting EFCA through the Senate is going to be tough. It has always been tough... But we are going to keep on pushing," he added.
It was, one union official estimated, the first time the words Employee Free Choice Act had left the president's lips since last September (other White House officials have talked about the measure). And it earned him a standing ovation.
Whether the remarks can serve as a motivational basis for the 2010 election is an open question, one that has Democrats increasingly nervous. Following Obama, the chairman of the two party campaign committees -- Sen. Robert Menendez and Rep. Chris Van Hollen -- are also slated to address the AFL-CIO gathering, undoubtedly hoping to craft a common playbook for the subsequent next three months.
The union has a potentially massive role to play in the 2010 elections with its deep pockets and vast on-the-ground resources. Already officials at the AFL-CIO have stressed that they are prepared to spend more than the previously allotted $53 million it set aside for 2010. On Wednesday, the union's president, Richard Trumka offered the most detailed explanation to date as to how the group would allocate those resources. The union, Trumka said, had pinpointed six states to serve as "firewalls" protecting against a potential Republican takeover of Congress. Those included, California, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio and Nevada. In addition to investing heavily in House, Senate and state races in those union-dense states, the AFL-CIO would also focus on 21 others -- so-called "battleground" states where there are key races that the union will prioritize.
In all of these races, the AFL-CIO would conduct what Trumka called the "most intensive on the ground education program that we have done in a number of years." That includes distributing letter and pamphlets, leafleting at the work place, phone banks, knocking on doors.
The strategy is not synonymous with a blank check, he stressed. There will be Democratic candidates that the union will not lift a finger to help. Not because they are bound to lose but because their voting record doesn't align with labor's interests.
"We look at people who are friends and if they are friends we will stay with them," he said. "If they haven't been friends, then we are not going to dilute the resources that we have helping them when there are other candidates who have been real friends to the working people needing help."
Despite griping among union officials in private, Trumka insisted that relations between the White House and the labor community are solid. He also predicted that workers will enthusiastically head to the polls in 2010 and that Congress will remain in Democratic control after votes are counted.
The president's address before the Executive Council was his first. And, upon entering the room, he received a standing ovation. Obama shook hands with the members, trailed by Trumka through two giant concentric squares of tables.
"We wanted to sing 'Happy Birthday' and give you a cake," Trumka said, upon introducing Obama. "But the Secret Service nixed the cake."