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Is the AFL-CIO Bailing on Obama?

Payback for President Obama’s decision to refuse to get personally involved in the Wisconsin recall fight may not be long in coming. U.S. News reports that the AFL-CIO will “redeploy funds away from political candidates” in the coming campaign in favor of spending on strengthening the union movement’s infrastructure. The magazine’s Washington Whispers blog quotes a spokesman as saying that this will mean a drastic cut in donations to candidates including the man at the head of the Democratic ticket, but that “this will not be a slight to President Obama.”

This is, as the magazine points out, a major policy change for the organization that once provided much of the money and the muscle for the Democrats’ national campaigns. But whether it is being done out of spite or, as is entirely possible, merely a recognition that the shrinking union movement needs to concentrate its dwindling resources on keeping itself alive, it must be considered a blow to a Democratic campaign that has already found itself facing a Republican presidential campaign that may be able to match the president’s ability to raise money. Either way, it is just one more sign that the Democrats will not be enjoying the same fundraising advantage in 2012 that they had in 2008. It also means that the AFL-CIO is conceding that its days as a national political force to be reckoned with are finished.

The timing of the announcement is bound to feed into speculation that the unions are mad about the president’s wise decision not to waste any of his own political capital on the Wisconsin recall. In the closing weeks of that campaign, the White House rightly saw that there was much to lose and little to gain from a presidential campaign stop in Wisconsin to bolster the flagging effort to oust Republican Governor Scott Walker. Though he was rightly mocked for only contributing a solitary tweet of encouragement to Walker’s opponent, no amount of presidential involvement would have saved the unions from their foolish desire to exact revenge on Walker for his successful campaign to cut back their ability to hold the state hostage in contract negotiations.

But even without the anger about their loss in Wisconsin, the AFL-CIO’s decision marks a sea change in the way our national campaigns are fought. In past decades, the union movement was a central, if not the major player in organizing Democratic presidential campaigns. The Democrats are no longer solely dependent on big labor, and they also understand that the price paid for too much help can be politically expensive. Nevertheless, the unions remain an important part of the Democrat coalition, and if they have decided to stop being players in electoral politics, the void they are leaving behind will be difficult to fill.

Though President Obama will probably not miss the union money too much, other candidates further down on the Democratic ticket will. It’s one more sign that a difficult election year just got a bit tougher for the president and his party.