Organized labor is traditionally one of the strongest sources of money and organizing power for Democrats, but lately union leaders have strongly criticized President Obama.
An event in the White House Rose Garden on Wednesday offered a perfect visual metaphor for the relationship between labor and the president. Obama was pushing Congress to reauthorize a transportation bill. To his left stood AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, representing organized labor. To his right was an official from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, representing the business community that Obama has tried so hard to win over.
Those two organizations have pulled the president in opposite directions for much of the past two years. Wednesday's photo-op aside, neither group is totally happy with where Obama is ending up.
The business community complains that the White House is choking them with new regulations. The labor community says Obama is throwing working-class people overboard.
At a recent breakfast hosted by The Christian Science Monitor newspaper, Trumka criticized Obama, saying without bolder action on the economy, the president "doesn't become a leader anymore. He's being a follower."
That criticism didn't surprise Kate Bronfenbrenner, a labor expert at Cornell University.
"The labor movement sees that he [Obama] keeps on acting as if he just moves further to the center, maybe then Republicans will stop being so intractable," she said.
The dissatisfaction is not universal, though. SEIU President Mary Kay Henry points out that the president revived the U.S. auto industry, a big plus for American workers.
"There are points where we have disagreement on economic policy and we can't cut our way to reviving our economy," she said. "So, yeah, there have been individual differences on policy, but I don't think for me that adds up to a frustration with the leadership of the president."
To the president's critics in labor, the list of perceived offenses is long.
There was the recent debt-ceiling deal, Obama's broken campaign promise to pass legislation that would simplify union organizing, and a White House senior staff with stronger ties to Wall Street than to labor.
Just after the White House meeting Wednesday, Trumka attended a jobs event at AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, D.C. This time he criticized the president without mentioning him by name.
"This is the time for boldness. This is a moment that working people will judge all of our leaders," he said. "Will they propose solutions that are on the scale necessary to address the job crisis that America has right now?"
Obama plans to give a major speech next week where he'll talk about helping Americans get back to work. Professor Harley Shaiken of the University of California, Berkeley, says the speech could be critical.
"It could be the opening of a renewed effort on jobs that really gets labor excited, or it could be too little too late, which really increases the frustration," Shaiken said. "It's going to be an important speech, and it will define where labor is on Election Day."
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said he hopes the speech can also find common ground between workers and employers.
"It's the president's view that there are a lot of aligned interests here," he said, "that there's an opportunity for us to put in place the kind of economic policies that could be supported by Democrats and Republicans, that could be supported by American businesses and American workers, that there are American communities all across the country that could benefit from these policies."
At the U.S. Chamber of Commerce headquarters Wednesday, President and CEO Tom Donohue sounded open to that possibility.
"We're not going to be able to deal with the other challenges we face," he said, "if we don't start to put people back to work to take them off the public payroll and have them paying taxes and driving confidence."
To be sure, labor and business leaders have some very different ideas about how to create jobs. For example, the Chamber of Commerce supports some free-trade deals that the unions oppose.
The president hopes that the dire unemployment situation will give both sides enough incentive to come together for more than just a moment in the Rose Garden.
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