As Wisconsin heads off to vote tomorrow in the recall election of Scott Walker, many pundits are looking at the results of that recall as a bellwether for the general election in 2012: a Walker victory would be good for Romney's presidential chances, while a victory by Tom Barrett, the Democratic challenger, would be good for Obama's presidential chances. I'm personally rather skeptical of the idea that the fate of conservatism rests in Wisconsin's hands, but there's something interesting about the Wisconsin recall dynamic: whatever the result, Obama might lose face.
A strong Walker win in Wisconsin might signal that Wisconsin is getting closer on the presidential level for November. (However, numerous Wisconsin polls that have shown Walker leading Barrett have also shown Obama leading Romney, so a Walker win in no way guarantees a Romney win in November.) Moreover, the failure to recall Walker might depress union enthusiasm for Democrats in Wisconsin and elsewhere; the White House has kept its distance from the Barrett campaign. If union rights are so important to the White House, why isn't it putting any skin in the game? And if these rights are not that important, why should union members rally around the president?
That dynamic is only marginally changed if Barrett wins tomorrow.* Should Barrett beat Walker, he can come into the governor's office knowing that he did it without the president. Indeed, it would seem as though Barrett would owe his gubernatorial win much more to Bill Clinton, who has actively campaigned for Barrett, than to Barack Obama, who has not. When Barrett appeared weakened, the White House let him twist in the wind. Would a Governor Barrett really be that motivated, then, to work devotedly to ensure that Obama wins Wisconsin in November? A union win in Wisconsin without Obama might also fracture the alliance of the White House with many big unions---if unions can win despite the White House's indifference, maybe they don't need the president as much as he needs them.
The White House likely wanted to keep a distance between itself and the Barrett campaign in order to avoid being embarrassed by a Barrett loss. But the current dynamic might lead to a White House embarrassment no matter what.
*A Barrett win is a distinct possibility; most of the polls showing a Walker lead depend upon a partisan turnout model that is very favorable to Republicans---even more favorable than the 2010 exit polls, in many cases. If turnout numbers are closer to 2008 than 2010, there is a real chance that Barrett can win, especially as this race appears to be tightening. Turnout will be key for this race.