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In Wisconsin the standoff between the governor and government workers is still playing out and there are similar confrontations brewing in other states. All these battles could have national consequences. But as NPR's Ari Shapiro reports, President Obama's team is publicly keeping its distance.

ARI SHAPIRO: President Obama spent a full day in Ohio this week, while union workers were raising their voices in protest.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Those demonstrators were in Columbus. The President was in Cleveland. He spoke all day long about small business and innovation, and did not say a word about the labor conflict. In fact, his only comment on the union battles since they began was a week ago in an interview with Milwaukee TV station WTMJ.

President BARACK OBAMA: Some of what I've heard coming out of Wisconsin where you're just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally seems like more of an assault on unions.

SHAPIRO: The White House is watching lots and saying little. Some of this may reflect a broad new sense of discipline. A year ago, the president was quick to change his focus from one crisis to another. Today, if the White House decides the president should spend the week talking about small business, his focus is more likely to stay there.

But Republicans have also demonstrated why Mr. Obama might be better served by watching from the sidelines. They accuse him of meddling in local affairs and preventing Wisconsin's governor from balancing the budget.

Senator BOB KASTEN (Republican, Wisconsin): I think it's inappropriate for President Obama to do anything except for try to deal with these problems on the federal level.

SHAPIRO: Bob Kasten is a Republican former Senator from Wisconsin.

Senator KASTEN: I think it's too cute, he's trying to have it both ways and he's trying to tell the people that he's concerned about deficits but he's also trying to tell at least a narrow group of public employee unions that he's concerned about the governor of Wisconsin going too far and hurting them.

SHAPIRO: Organizing for America is President Obama's political machine, separate from the White House. OFA helped organize some of the protests. But this week one official there stressed that, quote, "This is all being driven by the folks on the ground."

The new approach from national leaders seems to be - help where you can, but don't toot your horn about it. And that's fine with the unions.

Unidentified Man: (Chanting) Two, four, six, eight.

Crowd: (Chanting) Workers rights in every state.

SHAPIRO: Yesterday marchers gathered outside of Wisconsin's Washington, D.C. offices. Gerry Hudson is Executive Vice President for the Service Employees International Union. He said he appreciates Mr. Obama's support but doesn't need his help.

Mr. GERRY HUDSON (Executive Vice President, Service Employees International Union): We're not asking him to organize us. We can organize ourselves.

SHAPIRO: Is there a fear that if the White House and President Obama are too vocal then it will look like a manufactured imported controversy as opposed to an authentic grassroots thing?

Mr. HUDSON: Which is obvious - it might look like that and it obviously isn't, and so we don't want anybody to believe for one moment that the White House is organizing this. The White House is not.

SHAPIRO: There could be significant consequences for the White House regardless. In the last decade or so, Republicans have made inroads with working class voters who used to be staunch Democrats. Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center says these protests could be Democrats' moment to reverse that trend.

Mr. ANDREW KOHUT (President, Pew Research Center): Democrats stand to solidify their position with working class voters who are sympathetic to these strikers. And this is especially important because working class voters have very much been a swing group in recent elections.

SHAPIRO: A Gallup poll this week shows that 61 percent of Americans support collective bargaining rights. And many of these protests are in politically important swing states: such as Wisconsin, Ohio, and Indiana. They are places where Republicans made big gains in the 2010 midterm elections. Democrats believe that this conflict will help mobilize base voters for 2012, whether the White House is vocal or silent, and whether the unions ultimately win or lose.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News,�Washington.

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