AFSCME, a Former Critic, Endorses Obama
By Alec MacGillis
Only last month, Gerald McEntee, the president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, was one of organized labor's most outspoken critics of Barack Obama, professing grave doubts about Obama's qualifications as the Democratic presidential nominee.
McEntee told the Post's Dan Balz that he worried Obama "will literally walk almost lame into the Democratic National Convention," so weak a nominee would he be. "I think he has a problem with the blue-collar worker and relating to that worker," McEntee said.
John McCain, on the other hand, would be a formidable opponent, McEntee said, because McCain is "distancing himself from [President] Bush every day" and because he is a war hero and patriot who will be attractive to many of the the voters Democrats need to win in November.
Today, McEntee sounded a much different note as he announced that his union -- the largest in the AFL-CIO, with 1.5 million members -- had endorsed Obama after supporting Hillary Clinton in the primary. "Barack Obama has mobilized a historic movement to reclaim the greatness of America," McEntee said. "With his leadership, our nation will rise up to rebuild the middle class at home and restore America's reputation in the world."
Obama, McEntee added, "is a proven fighter on the issues our members care about most, such as ending privatization, providing state and local fiscal relief, fully funding and supporting public services and the workers who provide them, and guaranteeing that everyone in our country has access to quality, affordable health care they can count on."
Asked about the change in his estimation of Obama from one month ago, McEntee said that he and other AFSCME officials had changed their views of the candidate after extensive meetings with his staff and with Obama himself in Washington yesterday and today. "We've had an opportunity ... to sort out our differences to move ahead," he said. "We have changed positions [on Obama]. He's more sure-footed. We fought like hell for Hillary, no question about that, and at times it was tough on the campaign trail, but now we're prepared and ready" to back Obama.
AFSCME's investment in Clinton's campaign included heavy spending on mailings and radio ads harshly attacking Obama's health care plan for leaving out 15 million Americans because the plan lacks an individual mandate requiring people to buy insurance, an estimate that the Obama campaign contested. McEntee said today that Obama had in recent meetings given no indication that he was willing to reconsider an individual mandate in his approach to expanding coverage, but McEntee did not sound troubled by that. "As they dot the i's and cross the t's we'll take a look at [the plan] and see how far it goes," he said. "We hope it's going to go to the heart of universality."
McEntee said Obama assured him and other labor leaders that he was intent on making sure that trade deals contained tougher labor and environmental provisions, a position Obama stated often on the trail, particularly in Rust Belt states, but that was called into question after his economic adviser Austan Goolsbee was reported to have assured the Canadian government that such talk was mainly for political consumption.
Obama denied those reports, but himself hinted at the political nature of his anti-trade talk this week when he told Fortune magazine that his anti-NAFTA rhetoric had gone a bit overboard. "Sometimes during campaigns the rhetoric gets overheated and amplified," he told the magazine. "Politicians are always guilty of that, and I don't exempt myself."
McEntee said Obama was not challenged at this week's meetings about Goolsbee's comments, and also not asked about Obama's recent selection, for a new chief economic adviser, of Jason Furman, a young on-the-rise economist who is regarded warily by some in organized labor on the left for some past writings presenting a positive view of WalMart. "I think [Obama] has to, and should, take into consideration many points of view," McEntee said. "We're okay and willing to give this guy [Furman] a chance."
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