The White House sidestepped questions Tuesday about a labor leader’s controversial rhetoric at a Labor Day rally headlined by President Obama, dismissing the matter as “kabuki.”
Press secretary Jay Carney refused to condemn Teamster President Jimmy Hoffa’s fiery remarks and pointed out that Mr. Obama was not yet on stage when Mr. Hoffa roused a crowd of union workers in Detroit by promising “war” with the tea party. “President Obama, this is your army. We are ready to march. Let’s take these sons of bitches out and give America back to an America where we belong,” Mr. Hoffa said in his introduction of the president.
Pressed by reporters, Mr. Carney said the president didn’t hear the comments, which resulted in a near-immediate backlash from conservatives Monday.
“Mr. Hoffa speaks for himself,” Mr. Carney told reporters. “The president speaks for himself.”
Asked if Mr. Obama meant what he said when he used a January speech to implore civil discourse in the wake of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Mr. Carney said: “Of course he did.”
“I understand that there is a ritual in Washington that, you know, somebody says something and you link the associations and then everybody who has an association with him or her has to avow or disavow it,” Mr. Carney said, describing that process as “kabuki.”
Labor is a key voting bloc for Democrats, and Mr. Obama has been shoring up union support ahead of his 2012 re-election bid by touting his decision to double down on the government’s bailout of the auto industry and repudiating Republican governors for curbing the benefits of public workers. Mr. Obama also sought to tamp down labor opposition to a trio of free-trade agreements by making them contingent on an increase in worker training aid.
For their part, members of the GOP were quick to seize on Mr. Hoffa’s remarks, with former Alaska Gov. and tea-party favorite Sarah Palin taking to her Facebook page to blast the labor leader.
“These union bosses are desperately trying to cast the grass-roots tea party movement as being ‘against the working man.’ How outrageously wrong this unapologetic Jim Hoffa is, for the people’s movement is the real movement for working class men and women,” Mrs. Palin wrote in a post.
“While the hate-filled nature of big government labor leaders like Hoffa may not be surprising, it is disappointing for the president of the United States to deliver a speech just moments later at the same podium and proceed to praise Hoffa,” said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, a group aligned with the tea party. “The president should call out Hoffa and other union leaders for attacking their fellow Americans in this way, regardless of disagreements on how best to help our great nation.”
Mr. Hoffa wasn’t the only one whose Labor Day remarks stirred controversy. Vice President Joseph R. Biden garnered a mild dose of criticism in response to a speech he made at an Ohio rally in which he told union members they were the “only folks keeping the barbarians from the gates.”