In Wisconsin, Obama offers competing economic vision to Walker's

Story highlights

  • President Barack Obama urged overtime pay for workers earning up to $50,440 a year. The Labor Department estimates the change could aid 5 million workers.
  • Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Obama have clashed numerous times in the past, particularly over Walker's policies against organized labor.

(CNN)When President Barack Obama flew into La Crosse, Wisconsin, on Thursday, he was greeted by Gov. Scott Walker, and the two were seen shaking hands and smiling.

Less than an hour later, Obama was criticizing Walker's policies -- as well as the entire 2016 Republican field -- at a speech at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
Obama did not mention Walker by name at the event, at which he urged overtime pay for workers earning up to $50,440 a year. The Labor Department estimates the change could aid 5 million workers.
    "Now, this is an issue of basic fairness," an energized Obama told the crowd. "If you work longer, you work harder, you should get paid for it."
    He also claimed companies were taking advantage of current overtime rules by paying their lower-wage employees as salary employees.
    "They're making them work 50, 60, sometimes 70 hours a week without paying them an extra dime. In extreme cases, it's possible for workers to actually earn less than the minimum wage," he said. "So we're updating the rules. We're ending that exception."
    But Obama went even further, taking shots at the fiscal policies enacted by Walker, who's expected to jump into the presidential race in two weeks as a likely GOP frontrunner.
    "Your right to organize and bargain collectively was attacked. Your ... education funding was cut. Your minimum wage has been stuck in place," Obama said to the crowd, referring to Walker's policies.
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    "Wisconsin is this extraordinary state filled with extraordinary people, but if you end up having policies that cut education, help folks at the top, aren't expanding opportunity, then it's not going to work. We need better policies," Obama said as the crowd rose to their feet in support.
    Obama also took aim at the entire Republican 2016 field.
    "I've lost count how many Republicans are running. They'll have enough for an actual Hunger Games. ... That is an interesting bunch."
    Obama added that "they're good people" but their ideas are "bad," mentioning their opposition to the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
    "I just want to play back the tape. We were told all these measures were going to destroy jobs and explode the budget," Obama said. "They're going to make a whole lot of stuff up."

    Obama vs. Walker

    Walker had wasted no time Wednesday in slamming the President over his overtime proposal.
    "The President's effort is a political pitch, but the reality is this will lead to lower base pay and benefits and will cut workers' hours and flexibility in the workplace," Walker said in a statement issued from his campaign-in-waiting.
    Obama and Walker have clashed before.
    The President campaigned for Democrat Mary Burke's unsuccessful challenge to Walker's re-election bid last year, and the two men have traded shots over the ongoing negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.
    Perhaps most notably, in March, Obama issued a sharp rebuke to Walker's speedy signing of a "right to work" ban on mandatory union fees, just a few months after he campaigned for re-election with no mention of the fiery labor issue. Obama's remarks were surprising, as he rarely strays into state issues.
    "Wisconsin is a state built by labor, with a proud pro-worker past," Obama said in a statement shortly after Walker signed the measure. "So even as its governor claims victory over working Americans, I'd encourage him to try and score a victory for working Americans -- by taking meaningful action to raise their wages and offer them the security of paid leave."
    But Walker's aggressive posture toward organized labor has become baked into his national branding, as he presents himself as a leader unafraid to take on entrenched special interests and resilient in the face of liberal backlash.
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    In his first term, Walker effectively ended collective bargaining for teachers and public employees in Wisconsin, slashing pensions and securing greater worker contributions to health insurance as part of an effort to close the state's $3.6 billion budget deficit. The move met with outcry from organized labor both in the state and across the nation, and in June 2012, a union-led recall effort against Walker failed, handing the governor a major victory and unions a humiliating defeat.
    Yet Democrats were able to deliver Wisconsin for Obama, again, just a few months later.
    Wisconsin -- one of a dwindling number of states where Democrats and Republicans still joust for control -- has drawn much national attention as a bellwether for shifting demographics and political winds, as the influence of American labor, a force that made the rustbelt a stronghold for Democrats for decades, continues to fade.
    And part of Walker's appeal when he makes his expected presidential announcement on July 13 will be his success in the purple state, where he was elected three times in four years and has seen the state legislature add Republicans during his tenure.
    "If we can do it in Wisconsin, we can certainly do it in Washington and all across America," Walker told the crowd last weekend at the Western Conservative Summit in Colorado.