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Why Wisconsin matters for President Obama

From the CNN Political Unit
National AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka speaks to protesters in Madison, Washington, on Friday.
National AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka speaks to protesters in Madison, Washington, on Friday.
  • Large crowds are in Madison, Wisconsin, protesting budget cuts
  • President Obama is reportedly sending out his outside political group to rally protesters
  • House Speaker John Boehner condemns the move

Washington (CNN) -- President Obama knows that the ongoing budget protests in Wisconsin are just round one in the national battle for control of the budget message. So he's reportedly sent his outside political team, Organizing for America, to help build even larger crowds.

It's something that drew ire from House Speaker John Boehner on Friday.

"His political organization is colluding with special-interest allies across the country to demagogue reform-minded governors who are making the tough choices that the president is avoiding," Boehner said in a statement. "Rather than inciting protests against those who speak honestly about the challenges we face, the president and his advisers should lead."

When asked about the situation in Wisconsin, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said aboard Air Force One on Friday that Obama is "very understanding" for state governments and politicians to "reduce spending to make tough choices to be fiscally responsible."

"He's doing that at the federal level, and he understands that states need to do that at the state level," Carney added. "But he also feels very strongly that we need not to make this an assault on the collective bargaining rights of workers in any given state. He understands public employees need to make sacrifices just like everyone else."

Wisconsin's Republican Gov. Scott Walker, staring at a $3.6 billion state deficit, says he needs to cut somewhere.

Inflammatory signs in Wisconsin
Teachers under the budget ax
New York to lose 6000 teachers

And he's getting cover from Boehner, who, like the president, knows that Wisconsin is really just a proxy for their own showdown coming March 4 -- when funding for the federal government runs out and a possible shutdown is looming.

Boehner aides privately say they believe that Democrats are trying to stop Walker because they're worried he and other governors will be able to "pull a Chris Christie": the Republican in New Jersey who faced down unions.

"We have two choices: to either stand up and do the right thing, to speak the truth and speak it bluntly and directly, or to join the long parade of leaders who have come before us and failed," Christie has said.

Union officials, meanwhile, are vowing to take the protests to Ohio, Indiana and other big 2012 political battleground states.

"It's just a start. It's just a start," said Arlene Holt Baker, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO. "You'll start to see it all over the country. And as I said, this is payback for some of these folks."

Labor officials charge that teachers in Wisconsin are being unfairly targeted for deep cuts. They'd get smaller raises, pay more out-of-pocket for pensions and health care and lose collective bargaining rights for both.

White House aides note that in his interview with Wisconsin television station WTMJ, the president did say that leaders at all levels will have to work to make touch choices.

"Everybody's got to make some adjustments to new fiscal realities," Obama said. "We had to impose, for example, a freeze on pay increases for federal workers."

But Republicans say the president started the week at his news conference urging both parties to an "adult conversation" about how to pay for expensive government programs.

Obama, though, is ending the week helping to whip up the kind of protests and outrage that may make it harder to find bipartisan solutions to these budget messes, they charge.

CNN's Ed Henry and Ed Hornick contributed to this report.