Fascinated by the political struggle in Wisconsin, I re-read Rules for Radicals to gain a sense of how much our country's great community organizer will engage the battle. Wisconsin must be the stuff a young Barack Obama dreamed of: organized labor vs. a Republican governor. A power struggle between the Rules for Radicals so-called "Have-Nots" and the "Haves" represented by Gov. Scott Walker. Obama learned community power dynamics in Chicago from the principal disciple of the author of the book on community organizing, the notorious Saul Alinsky.
Let's fast-forward: Obama turned his successful presidential campaign organization into a giant community organizing committee called Organizing for America. Last week he turned it loose in Wisconsin to support organized labor. Makes sense. But in re-reading Alinsky's Rules for Radicals something seemed out of place to me. The "Haves" in this case are organized labor! Many states are in financial trouble due to lavish public sector union benefits and Gov. Walker is trying to reduce Wisconsin's costs by trimming some of the unions' collective bargaining rights and by asking workers to contribute a reasonable amount to their retirement and healthcare packages.
It became apparent to me that the Badger State's public unions would have to reposition themselves as the "Have-Nots," and they did on Friday. They offered to concede to Walker's benefits package demands . . . but they refused to give ground on collective bargaining rights. A smart "by the book" move. The only remaining question on my mind was how much President Obama would become involved in the fight.
As Alinsky advocated, Obama is a disciplined realist who uses power to advance his self-interests. I believe he'll use Wisconsin, and similar state-based struggles, to gain power to enhance his reelection chances. This objective will require Obama to keep a relatively low profile. His approval rating rarely falls below 40 percent, which means, in a worst-case scenario, he will need just 11 percent more of the electorate to win in 2012. In other words, he can't be perceived as being too radical or he will risk alienating the moderate middle. Yet, he does need to inspire his liberal base. He can do this by sending in Organizing for America and making pronouncements of support from distant Washington, D.C.
Don't look for Obama to go to Wisconsin and other states like Indiana to make high-profile speeches in favor of organized labor. If he does, the power calculus will have changed significantly, and I'll be re-reading Rules for Radicals again.