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Sweet column: Obama cheered at SEIU. Union weighing whether to endorse.

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WASHINGTON -- White House hopeful Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) earned thunderous applause Monday speaking to Service Employees International Union political activists meeting here. He's facing an uphill fight to snag one of the nation's most prized labor endorsements.

As the U.S. mortgage markets continue to stumble because of a massive failure of loans to poorly qualified individuals, Obama earlier Monday in New York called for:

He gets their applause -- can he get their support?
Obama out to grab one of nation's most prized labor endorsements

• • Simplifying mortgage disclosures to make it more likely buyers will understand that their payments could skyrocket and more safeguards to make sure "potential homeowners aren't tricked into purchasing loans they can't afford." Using his bully pulpit, Obama called for institutions holding bad mortgages to let customers refinance or sell, rather than lose their homes.

• • More credit card interest rate disclosure to make it clear a card could carry a shifting, higher rate.

• • Rating agencies to be more transparent to avoid conflicts of interest.

Today, Obama will unveil a middle class tax cut proposal, as he continues to focus this week on domestic policy.

On the labor front, in mid-March, Obama did not use the word "union" when he addressed the International Association of Fire Fighters, who ended up backing Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Ct.). Obama was slightly less hesitant a short time later at a Building Trades convention here. On May 14, at an AFL-CIO presidential forum in Trenton, N.J., Obama more clearly articulated his support for organized labor and tied it into his drive for universal health care and for ending the war in Iraq.

At Monday's SEIU political action conference -- as the union weighs whether to endorse in the Democratic primary -- Obama made his most passionate and unabashed pro-union pitch yet, painting himself more than in previous speeches as a fighter for union causes.

"I'm tired of playing defense all the time," he said, reminding his audience, "I've spent my entire adult life working with the SEIU."

All the main Democratic 2008 contenders are pro-union. But chief rivals Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) are picking up endorsements from individual national unions while Obama has scored none.

Obama argued for almost 40 minutes that he could deliver.

"The question I ask SEIU members is, not 'Who is talking about your agenda?' but 'Who can change politics in Washington to make that a reality?' " Obama said. "Change starts by making sure a Democrat is in the White House. Change doesn't end just because a Democrat is in the White House. It's time to turn the page on the old way of doing business."

SEIU members also gave standing ovations to Edwards and Clinton, though Obama's response was at an even higher pitch. Each rival has strong pockets of strengths in states with large SEIU memberships: Obama in Illinois, Clinton in New York and Edwards in California. Obama's team would rather the SEIU stay neutral than endorse a rival. Tom Balanoff, an influential SEIU vice president and president of the SEIU Illinois state council is lobbying for Obama.

An issue for Obama is demonstrating he can beat a Republican if he is the Democratic nominee. "Part of the question," said Balanoff, "is who can win."

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Lynn Sweet

Lynn Sweet is a columnist and the Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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This page contains a single entry by Lynn Sweet published on September 18, 2007 8:50 AM.

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