Instead, Stern has seen the Service Employees International Union jarred by a spending scandal and internecine feuding, and more recently by the favor-selling investigation that led to the arrest of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
Stern has not been implicated in any wrongdoing, and many say he has moved forcefully to address the allegations of corruption in the union's biggest California chapter and internal complaints of financial impropriety at a second Los Angeles local.
While federal prosecutors allege that Blagojevich sought a plum job through the SEIU in exchange for filling Obama's U.S. Senate seat with a labor ally, authorities have not accused union officials of participating in such a scheme. The union is cooperating with the investigation of Blagojevich.
But Stern's critics point out that a trio of SEIU officers who have faced varying degrees of scrutiny were his appointees. Some say that his administration ignored early reports of trouble with one or more of them, particularly Tyrone Freeman, the sacked president of the largest California local. Freeman is the target of a federal criminal probe that confidential sources say probably will stretch well into 2009.
An SEIU inquiry already has concluded that Freeman misappropriated more than $1 million in union funds for himself and his relatives, an allegation he has denied.
Several current and former SEIU staffers said they had gone to Stern's lieutenants with concerns about Freeman's spending on cars and restaurants as far back as 2001, although the complaints did not include allegations of any illegalities. Most of those people asked not to be named because they feared jeopardizing their futures in the labor movement.
They said they also had raised questions about Freeman's relationship with a union worker with whom he had a child and whom he eventually married. Nothing was done, they said.
Sal Rosselli, the president of an SEIU local in the Bay Area, said he was among those who complained. He is now locked in a feud with Stern.
"There were lots of discussions about problems with Tyrone -- the way money was being spent, Ford Explorers for all the staff, second cars for some people," Rosselli said.
Stern, 58, and SEIU's president since 1996, declined to be interviewed. Spokeswoman Michelle Ringuette said Stern had no prior knowledge of Freeman's alleged misdeeds.
"Until we read these allegations in the L.A. Times, nobody ever brought before us serious credible evidence of wrongdoing," she said.
Meanwhile, Ringuette said, all of Stern's actions have been aimed at promoting the welfare of the union's membership, which includes social workers, janitors, healthcare providers and security guards.
But some fault Stern for setting a poor example. The SEIU's national office has paid millions of dollars to companies, nonprofits and individuals with family ties and other personal connections to the union's leaders. One firm partly owned by an SEIU director received more than $1 million in consulting fees. The union says all the payments were proper.
Others say Stern's push to centralize control over the 2-million-member union created conditions for abuses. They say his consolidation of locals into bigger and bigger chapters has reduced SEIU democracy, and thus limited the ability of rank-and-file members to monitor and challenge officers they suspect of unethical conduct.
"When your union is less democratic than the Teamsters, you have to look in the mirror and say, 'What happened?' " said Ken Paff, national organizer for Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a reform group.
Paff said the "mega-locals" formed under Stern's administration have made it nearly impossible for dissidents to collect enough money or candidacy signatures to run against incumbents in union elections. He said the U.S. Labor Department has accused Freeman's local of making it so difficult for non-incumbents to gather signatures that its last election was a sham.
Ringuette rejected Paff's criticism. She said the consolidations have been approved by the membership's elected delegates.
The SEIU spent millions of dollars on Obama's behalf, and fielded legions of get-out-the-vote troops in pivotal states. After the election, speculation swirled that Stern would become Obama's labor secretary -- the nomination went to Rep. Hilda Solis, a Los Angeles Democrat -- or be offered another post in the administration.