Obama to AFSCME: I'll picket with strikers

Sen. Barack Obama's advantage in his presidential campaign is that he is a fresh face whom many voters - and not just Democrats - see as candid and capable of inspiring those who may have become disillusioned with politics. Three years ago, Obama was a state senator. And no matter how you slice it, such a jump to the highest office in the land would be unprecedented.

This comes to mind because of a promise from the Illinois senator to union members in Iowa, the site of the first caucuses, that some might see as another example of naivete, and a pledge that might be difficult to keep. And it may provide evidence for those critics who wonder if he is up to the job.

In an appearance before a meeting of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Workers, the nation's largest public employees union, Obama pledged as president he would join the picket line in a strike.

Now, courting interest groups is as much a part of American politics as kissing babies. He is neither the first nor the last politician to do so. One person's pandering is another's pledge of support. Republicans pander to gun owners, conservative Christians and business groups.

GOP presidents have certainly spoken to anti-abortion rallies, yet not one has marched in demonstrations. Memory does not produce the example of a Democratic president walking a picket line. It would not be presidential.

But by promising that he would do so as president Obama is making an unusual promise that leaves him open to charges he does not understand the role of president.

If nothing else, imagine a president matching in a picket line with hoards of Secret Service all around him. Not only would it be a logistical nightmare, it would demean the office.

No presidential candidate is immune from trying to help those who got him elected. And pledging to push for and sign legislation to help unions increase their political clout and financial position would be par for the course. But pledging to march in a picket line is another story.

According to the well-respected Mike Glover of the Associated Press, who has been covering the Iowa caucuses since Obama was in high school, the candidate said that he had marched with picketers trying to unionize a Chicago hotel, and had told them "if they were still fighting four years from now, I'd be back on that picket line as president of the United States."

Obama was a community organizer before he got into elective politics and his commitment to organized labor is genuine. But a president has an obligation to be president of all Americans.

Only about one in 10 American workers are members of a labor union these days. Others certainly sympathize with the admirable goals of organized labor to make life better for working men and women.

But to assume that as president he would be speaking for the American people by injecting himself in a labor dispute is a questionable decision. Being known as the president who embraces organized labor is one thing, being one of its soldiers is another.

Would a President Obama be willing to buck organized labor in a national crisis? Would he, for instance, fire air traffic controllers as did Ronald Reagan, if he felt such a move was necessary to keep the nation's commercial air system -- and the economy dependent on it - running?

At that point, it would be reasonable for the American people to wonder whose interests would be foremost in Obama's mind - the American people's, or organized labor.

Running for president is a tough business and candidates are human beings who often say things in the heat of the moment that come back to haunt them. But Obama's pledge to picket as president was in his prepared text.

It may get lost in the frenzy that is a presidential campaign, but the episode provides insight into a man who would like to be president of the United States.


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