On Wisconsin: Obama's Badger State Dilemma

It would take a brave man to bet against the president winning Wisconsin in 2012, but strategists and politicos will highlight one GOP victory: at the very least, they have forced Obama to turn up.

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Obama has been forced to give serious thought to Wisconsin
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Ewan Watt
On 26 August 2011 09:59

In some cases Illinoisans are greeted in Wisconsin by a somewhat creative three letter acronym that crudely describes their alleged poor command of the highways. 

Rather than endure such hostility, President Barack Obama recently decided to avoid the Badger State completely during his trip through the Midwest.  However, whereas Obama’s fellow Illinoisans usually have to encounter stereotypes inspired from behind the wheel, the president has a completely different problem:  terrible polling numbers.

In a state that then Senator Obama emerged victor by a considerable 13.9% margin, Wisconsin is looking problematic for the president—and a potential nightmare for his re-election bid.  Obama’s approval rating in Wisconsin has hovered at around 50 percent.  One poll from the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling has even put the president’s disapproval at 51 percent in the state, with only 45 percent approval. 

Thus Wisconsin symbolizes a state that President Obama’s campaign did not expect to spend considerable resources.  This has changed considerably, and the state can now be regarded as an inconvenient distraction for a campaign that’s already concerned about Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida. 

Wisconsin may not have gone Republican in a presidential campaign since Ronald Reagan’s near-perfect victory in 1984, but the GOP enjoyed a clean sweep of the state House and Senate, as well as the gubernatorial race.

Wisconsin is in some ways quite a paradox.  Outside of Berkley, California, Wisconsin is widely regarded as ground zero for the progressive movement in the United States, boasting some of the most robust pro-union laws and one of the greatest U.S. senators to have lived. 

And yet, despite its rouge taint, Wisconsin has also been one of conservative America’s greatest policy laboratories in recent years.  The charter school movement and radical welfare reform largely emerged out of Wisconsin, particularly Milwaukee.  And it’s from Milwaukee that Wisconsin has spawned another policy leader:  Governor Scott Walker.

Having inherited a fiscal calamity earlier this year, Governor Walker decided to radically overhaul the health insurance and retirement benefits enjoyed by Wisconsin’s public employees, requesting that they contribute 12.6 percent and 5.8 percent respectively.  More controversially, Governor Walker decided to finally tackle public employees’ collective bargaining rights, a move that quickly earned him the opprobrium of Democrats and the state’s unions.

As Milwaukee County executive, Walker often lamented the fact that when he had to rein in spending, collective bargaining would prevent him from negotiating on an individual basis with key staff, resulting in mass firings that included some of Milwaukee’s best and brightest.  As a result, the only way to cut budgets and keep key staff members would be through implementing an ambitious plan of over hauling workers’ benefits and collective bargaining.  Once these reforms were introduced in the legislature, the response from Wisconsin Democrats was, predictably, one of mindless outrage.

Only days after President Obama had called for civility following the shooting of Representative Gabriel Giffords, Democrats and big labor endeavored to compare Governor Walker to every dictator (both living and deceased), even making the absurd claim that the cause being fought out on the Patchouli-scented streets of Madison were somehow akin to the anti-Mubarak uprisings in Cairo. 

Despite 14 Democratic state senators fleeing the state to Illinois in order to prevent a quorum call, Walker’s legislation finally passed and was signed into law, immediately making him public enemy number one amongst the American left. 

In response, the unions and state Democrats have come out all guns blazing to defeat Walker and the Republicans, even mounting recall campaigns, an initiative that bore some fruit when two GOP state senators were defeated by Democratic challengers. 

However, the state Senate and House are still in GOP hands.  What’s more, it’s highly questionable whether Wisconsinites have the stomach for more recall elections, making it ever more doubtful whether the Democrats can successfully recall Walker

Now that is not to say that Walker is out of the woods entirely.  He is still dealing with poor approvals, although these are largely similar to Obama’s numbers in Wisconsin.  And yet, unlike Obama, Walker can already start to boast of some quite considerable results.

One of the weapons used against Walker during the stand-off with the unions was that he was cutting taxes for corporations in order to help fund his cuts in spending. 

Unfortunately, despite being as vacuous a claim as they come, it was one that some corners of cable news were only too happy to promulgate.  What Walker did do was offer sizeable tax incentives to businesses that relocated to Wisconsin.  And with Pat Quinn still in the governor’s mansion in Illinois, who could blame him?  In fact, it’s almost safe to say that the only people who have migrated from Wisconsin to Illinois in the last year have been AWOL Democratic state senators. 

According to numbers released at the end of July, Wisconsin appears to be witnessing a nascent job boom, creating more than half of America’s new private sector jobs for the month of June.  Since Walker became governor, Wisconsin has “added 39,300 private-sector jobs.”  For a governor who had allegedly “declared war on workers”, he’s doing a terrible job of it.

And what of Walker’s education reforms?  As this Weekly Standard article points out, the sky has yet to fall in.  Thanks to Walker’s reforms Wisconsin’s schools are doing pretty well.  Providing schools with greater fiscal autonomy has allowed them to make crucial cost efficiencies that has not just saved thousands of teachers from losing their jobs, but also allowed some schools to run additional classes and offer merit pay (the unions’ great evil) to teachers. 

It’s still early days, but President Obama and the Democrats are now staring at a major dilemma:  what if Governor Walker succeeds?  What if Wisconsin continues to create jobs and flush out deficiencies in the public sector?  It would take a brave man to bet against the president winning Wisconsin in 2012, but strategists and politicos will highlight one GOP victory:  at the very least, they have forced Obama to turn up

Ewan Watt is a Washington, DC-based public affairs consultant.  He lives in Alexandria, Virginia.

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