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Obama meets Wisconsin factory workers and governor (briefly)

President Barack Obamspeaks Master Lock Milwaukee Wednesday Feb. 15 2012. Obamis visiting Master Lock manufacturing operatibefore heading three-day trip West

President Barack Obama speaks at Master Lock in Milwaukee, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2012. Obama is visiting the Master Lock manufacturing operation before heading on a three-day trip to the West Coast. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

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Updated: March 17, 2012 10:19AM

MILWAUKEE — President Barack Obama got less face time with the union-battling Republican governor of Wisconsin on his visit here Wednesday than he did with the vice president of China the day before.

Obama had stern words for both China and Republicans on Wednesday as he spoke before hundreds of union factory workers at the Master Lock Co. — the world’s largest manufacturer of locks. The company just moved 100 jobs back from China to Milwaukee, and Obama wants other companies to follow suit.

Gov. Scott Walker at one point had talked about appearing with Obama at the factory, but on Wednesday, he down-sized his time with the president to a cordial 30-second greeting on the tarmac at General Mitchell Airport, during which Walker handed Obama a Milwaukee Brewers jersey. Walker said a touch of stomach flu prevented him from joining Obama at the factory.

Walker and Obama are on opposite sides of several campaigns. Wisconsin Democrats, quietly aided by some working on Obama’s re-election, gathered a million signatures of Wisconsin voters to force a recall election of Walker following the governor’s all-out crackdown on unions last year.

Obama visited Wisconsin frequently during his campaign and the first years of his administration but had not been back since Walker ended collective bargaining rights for public-sector unions. Unions and their supporters launched massive protests and the recall campaign.

Walker’s hard line has made him a hero to Republicans, who say getting tough with unions is the way to help Wisconsin’s and the country’s economy. Some fans urged Walker to run for president. Democrats suggested Walker skipped the factory appearance because he feared an unwelcome reception from the unionized workers.

“It’s surprising he would go to the airport and greet the president there, which is appropriate, but then not come here,” said State Rep. Peter Barca (D-Kenosha), the minority leader of Wisconsin’s House . “But then the only trend I’d see is he rarely comes out to the public unless it’s a well-vetted audience, so for whatever reason he does not want to appear in public and meet with everyday citizens, and I don’t understand that.”

Walker denied that.

“If it was politics, I wouldn’t have greeted him here,” Walker said at the airport. “Today’s the president’s day. I’m appreciative he’s in Wisconsin, appreciative he’s focused on manufacturing. We’ll leave politics for another day.”

Though Obama had met with visiting Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping in the Oval Office Tuesday, Obama did not spare China in his remarks before this union crowd. He mentioned China five times.

“I directed my administration to create a Trade Enforcement Unit with one job: investigating unfair trade practices in countries like China,” Obama said.

Xi also visited the Midwest Wednesday, in Iowa. Both Xi and Obama were continuing on to California, where Obama was attending fund-raisers for his re-election.

Though the stop in Milwaukee was an official presidential trip to talk policy, it often took on the feel of a campaign rally, as Obama, union officials and Master Lock CEO John Heppner talked up Master Lock as a model of how unions and management can find compromise.

“Master Lock is a great example of what can happen when a company and a union work together,” John Drew of the United Auto Workers said, warming up the crowd before Obama took the stage.

Heppner jokingly said as Obama was given a tour of the factory by a union official, “God knows the president could come back a Republican. Did I just say that?”

Obama said Heppner visited the White House in January and told Obama, “It now makes more business sense for Master Lock to bring jobs back home here to Milwaukee,” Obama said. “Over the last few years, it’s become more expensive to do business in countries like China. Meanwhile, American workers — we’ve have become even more productive.”

Workers shouted “BOO!” after Obama said, “Right now, companies get tax breaks for moving jobs and profits overseas.”

Obama challenged Congress to send him legislation to reward companies that bring jobs home and punish companies that export jobs so he could sign such legislation “Right now!” The crowd began chanting “Right now!” and Obama laughed and repeated it himself.

Without naming one of his major Republican opponents, Mitt Romney, Obama indirectly slapped Romney for his stand against the auto industry bailout.

“I took office at a time when the American auto industry was on the verge of collapse. Some even said we should let it die,” Obama said. “I refused to let that happen. And today, the American auto industry is back. General Motors is the number-one automaker in the world again. Chrysler has grown faster in the U.S. than any major car company. Ford is investing billions in U.S. plants and factories.”

Barca sees trends heading in a Democratic direction for both the recall and the November elections.

“A million-plus signatures in 60 days is really a remarkable achievement,” Barca said. “I remember when Ohio submitted a million signatures on their petition and that’s a state nearly twice as large as Wisconsin – that’s a huge proportion of our voters.”

And Democrats now have names and addresses for the quarter of the state’s electorate that signed the petition. The Obama campaign is hoping the organization and energy generated by the recall election flows into the November election.

Republicans are banking on the opposite effect.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who could be the Democratic nominee for governor if state election officials certify the recall effort, also met Obama at the airport and accompanied him to the factory.

Obama donned goggles and toured the factory, telling the crowd that seeing all these locks brought back memories of his high school days.

“I was thinking about my gym locker in high school,” Obama said. “If you go into the boys’ locker room it’s sometime a little powerful — the odor in there.”

The crowd began laughing.

“We weren’t washing our stuff enough,” Obama continued, to laughter. “As I got older and kept using Master locks, I became a better customer cause couldn’t always remember my combination. I ended up having to have the locks sawed off and buying a new one. So I ended up giving you a lot of business.”

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