President Obama returned to Wisconsin on Wednesday for the first time in a year, where he delivered an address on jobs. But as notable about the address' timing was the fact that this was his first visit to the state in over a year, despite its standing as a leading battleground in the 2012 elections. The president's avoidance of the state coincides with the polarizing fight labor unions have waged against Republican governor Scott Walker, prompting a recall campaign against him over his budget reform law.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel noted a telling statistic: In the seven months before Walker announced the details of his controversial budget repair bill which curbed collective bargaining for public employees, Obama visited the swing state five times, while in the year since, his only visit was the one he made on Wednesday.
Obama's visit to Wisconsin on Wednesday was an official one, not a campaign trip, and he did not mention the recall campaign against Walker, who greeted the president upon his arrival, but citing illness, did not appear with him at his speech. Asked by the Journal-Sentinel if the state's political tensions kept Obama away, a White House spokeswoman responded that Obama was in Wisconsin on Wednesday to discuss "bringing manufacturing jobs back home,"
But the president has weighed in before, about a year ago, when he reacted to the then-active protests in Madison following the unveiling of Walker's bill.
"Some of what I've heard coming out of Wisconsin, where you're just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally seems like more of an assault on unions," Obama told WTMJ in February of 2011.
Walker, meanwhile, has pushed back against Obama, as recently as last week, during his address in Washington at the Conservative Political Action Conference
The outcry against Walker prompted a series of state Senate recalls in 2011. Two Republicans were unseated as Democrats fell just one pickup short of retaking control of the state Senate. Organizing for America, an arm of the Democratic National Committee designed to rally support for the president's priorities, involved itself extensively in the 2011 races. Democrats credit the group with the gathering enough signatures to ensure Walker will be on the ballot this year.
"While organizationally they were not out there talking and claiming credit, OFA volunteers proper were very, very helpful in a substantial portion of the 35,000 statewide volunteers collecting signatures," said a Democratic strategist aligned with the recall effort.
But Obama was visibly absent from the state in 2011.
"I wouldn't characterize his involvement in this as at arm's length, but I wouldn't call it all in -- engaged and helpful where possible from the start," said the Democratic strategist.
There is a strategic explanation for the president's avoidance of Wisconsin. The state Senate recalls were targeted effort against Republicans -- all in districts where the GOP candidate won back in 2008, the same year Obama cruised to victory in Wisconsin by 14 points. So it's not as if his presence would have been a big boost.
But now, a different kind of recall looms, one in which statewide turnout will be a major factor, no matter where in Wisconsin it comes from. An appearance by Obama in Democratic-heavy areas like Dane County could help boost turnout among voters on the left.
"We saw a lot of Obama in 2009 and 2010 but only one very early visit in 2011. If he returns frequently this year, he'll have a hard time not being drawn into the recall in any case," said University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist Charles Franklin
Involving himself too heavily in a recall election could backfire politically for the president. Polling shows a sharply divided electorate and most analysts expect a close recall election. If Walker wins, and Obama involves himself too heavily in the campaign, it could ding his chances in the swing state come November. On the other hand, if Walker is recalled, the Democratic base would be motivated and energized for the November elections.
Walker is already casting the campaign as a harbinger.
"If we suddenly awaken ... this wave of people who come out and vote for me, I think those people are likely to vote for Republicans in the fall," Walker told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
in an interview last week.
Strategists on both sides see a careful high wire act that the president's reelection team will have to perform.
"It's definitely an interesting balance for them where [the president] wants to be seen as helping and firing up the base but doesn't want to get sucked so down into a gubernatorial race they lose their plan for the presidential election," said one Democratic strategist familiar with Wisconsin.