Labor leader wants leadership with a sharp cutting edge

WASHINGTON — Labor boss Richard Trumka is not one to nibble around the edges.

He declined a plate of bacon and eggs when sitting down to breakfast with a group of reporters last week because, the AFL-CIO president explained, he was concerned he might spit out a mouthful if he didn't like a question. The stains on his Brooks Brothers necktie suggested this was more than a theoretical possibility.

So perhaps it should not be a surprise that Trumka has lost patience with the Great Nibbler in our civic life, President Obama. The president, he complained, has been doing "little nibbly things ... that aren't going to make a difference and aren't going to solve the problem" with the economy. Obama, he protested, decided to "work with the tea party to offer cuts to middle class programs like Social Security." And, Trumka said, Obama has limited his proposals to "those little things that he thinks others will immediately accept."

Without bolder action on the economy, Trumka told the gathering, organized by the Christian Science Monitor, "I think he doesn't become a leader anymore; he's being a follower."

This is harsh criticism of a Democratic president from a natural ally — and it's backed up by labor's plans to create its own "super-PAC" rather than give money to the Democrats. The criticism is justified, as the former miner outlined it, because Obama is on his way to a failed presidency if he doesn't change course with the rollout of his new jobs program next month.


"I said to him, 'Do not look at what is possible — look at what is necessary,'" Trumka said, recounting a recent White House meeting when he urged the president to offer more than modest programs that Republicans support. "If you only propose what you think they'll accept, they control the agenda," Trumka said. "I urged him to propose what was necessary to solve the problem ... and if he doesn't and he falls into the nibbling around the edge, I think history will judge him and I think working people will judge him."

As a practical matter, the sort of actions labor favors — $4 trillion in infrastructure spending, a WPA-type jobs program and the like — aren't going to happen. As a matter of economics, they may not be efficient or desirable ways to fix the economy.

But Trumka still makes a good point, because this isn't primarily about enacting new policy. It's about building confidence. If Obama is to dispel the growing — and debilitating — impression that he is weak, he needs to show people he's willing to fight for something other than his tee time. "We're going in the wrong direction," Trumka said. "There has to be some hope that we're going to turn it around. That means there have to be some bold solutions and some risk taking."

According to a poll released Thursday by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, the proportion of Americans who regard Obama as a strong leader has dropped to 49 percent from 58 percent three months ago, and the percentage who believe Obama can get things done has dropped to 44 percent from 55 percent. A majority of independents now regard Obama as unable to get things done, and a majority of Democrats think he should be tougher against the Republicans.

The president, however, remains unconcerned. Would he call Congress back from recess to address the jobs crisis? He would not. Neither would he cancel his vacation on a $50,000-per-week Martha's Vineyard compound. When the earthquake struck the East Coast, he was on the golf course. On the day Trumka complained about the need for action, Obama spent nearly five hours on the beach with his family then went to dinner with friends.

Now Obama is promising a new jobs plan — after he returns from the beach. The AFL-CIO chief, for one, is worried it will be the same old mix of tax breaks, infrastructure banks and patent reforms. "That's not going to get the job done," he said.  

That's why the labor boss has, in his private sessions with Obama and in his meeting with reporters, urged Obama to demand more than he thinks is possible. "You need leadership with a sharp cutting edge to say, 'this is what I stand for, this is what they stand for,'" Trumka said. "Give them the narrative about why it will work," rather than "more of the same of, 'we're muddling along.'"

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