Last year, when angry protesters filled the streets of Madison, Wis., denouncing Gov. Scott Walker's plan to curtail some union collective bargaining powers, President Obama was eager to associate himself with the union cause. "Some of what I've heard coming out of Wisconsin, where they're just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally, seems like more of an assault on unions," Obama told a Milwaukee TV reporter in February 2011.
Now, it's just days until voters decide whether to recall Walker -- an effort started, maintained and financed by the unions. If the polls are correct, Walker, who is being challenged by Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, seems headed toward keeping his job. And now, the president is not only no longer talking about Wisconsin, he's actually seeking to distance himself from next week's likely Democratic defeat.
"This is a gubernatorial race with a guy who was recalled and a challenger trying to get him out of office," top Obama campaign official Stephanie Cutter said Wednesday on MSNBC. "It has nothing to do with President Obama at the top of the ticket, and it certainly doesn't have anything to do with Mitt Romney at the top of the Republican ticket."
Barrett would have loved a presidential visit to help shore up his faltering campaign. But even though Obama's re-election effort depends heavily on union money and muscle, the president said no. Instead, former President Clinton will visit Milwaukee on Friday to offer last-minute support.
The latest poll on the recall battle shows why Obama is staying away. It's not just that he doesn't want to appear with a loser. Perhaps just as importantly, there is no advantage for Obama to risk his own popularity by making a high-profile visit to oppose policies that are finding increasing favor with voters.
The new poll, from Marquette University Law School, shows Walker leading Barrett 52 percent to 45 percent. Beyond the horse race, the Marquette pollsters also asked about specific elements of Walker's reforms. It turns out some of the key elements of those policies -- reforms Obama strongly opposed -- are now winning the day.
First, Marquette asked voters about "requiring public employees to contribute to their own pensions and pay more for health insurance." That wins overwhelming public approval, 75 percent to 22 percent.
Next the pollsters asked about "limiting collective bargaining for most public employees." The public favored that, too, 55 percent to 41 percent.
Those are two key elements of the proposal that set off such ugly protests last year. Now, they're winners.
Marquette also asked about "cutting spending by reducing state aid to public schools," which voters disapproved of by 67 percent to 29 percent. But Walker has made a compelling argument that the reforms have freed up money for schools to use on education rather than, say, paying for overpriced union-mandated health coverage contracts.
The poll shows that voters believe Walker, by a 50 percent to 43 percent margin, would be better at creating jobs in Wisconsin. They also think Walker is more likely to balance the budget and make taxes fair for everyone.
Finally, a bottom-line question: "Thinking about all the changes in state government over the past year, do you think Wisconsin is better off in the long run because of these changes or worse off in the long run?" Fifty-four percent said their state better off, while 42 percent said worse off.
Those are winning issues for Walker and Republicans. And Barack Obama is on the wrong side of all of them.
At the same time, the Marquette pollsters found something quite different in the presidential race. Likely voters in Wisconsin favor the president over Mitt Romney, 51 percent to 43 percent, and Obama has a 55 percent favorable rating, to Romney's 40 percent.
Some might question how voters could favor both Scott Walker and Barack Obama, but that's the way it is, at least right now. "I think the numbers are probably right," says Charlie Sykes, a popular conservative radio host in Wisconsin, "which suggests that 1) Walker is doing awfully well, 2) Tom Barrett is a remarkably bad candidate, and 3) Wisconsin remains purple, leaning blue."
All of which shows why Obama is staying away. He is relatively popular in Wisconsin, but a visit to the state would just highlight the fact that he took the wrong side in the most passionate political battle in decades. Why show up and associate himself with policies voters no longer believe will work?
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.