Although the Bush administration moved cautiously Monday to intervene in the West Coast ports shutdown, few observers doubt that the president will act quickly to end the lockout if the two sides can't settle their differences within days.
Most administration attention now focuses on the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which gives the president the power to call for an 80-day cooling-off period. Observers say if Bush ultimately invokes the act and ends the shutdown, he is likely to reap political as well as economic benefits.
Indeed, it is hard to imagine an issue better framed for a Republican president to tackle than another economic crisis spilling out of Democratic California and, this time, arguably triggered by a keystone of the Democratic coalition: organized labor.
Although members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union are being locked out by management, the shipping companies and terminal operators say they had no choice but to shut down the ports after what they characterized as an orchestrated slowdown by workers.
"I do think if the president invokes the Taft-Hartley law, it could be very helpful," said Stephen Kinney, a Los Angeles-based partner of the GOP polling firm Public Opinion Strategies. "To take some kind of action instead of sitting on the sidelines would be fitting with his character and show his decisiveness."
Most of Bush's encounters with organized labor since coming to office 20 months ago have been combative. In March 2001, for instance, he issued an executive order preventing a strike by mechanics at Northwest Airlines. He went on to help push pilots and flight attendants into settlements with Delta and American airlines.
Within months of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, he cited national security concerns to abruptly end union representation at several Justice Department agencies.
More recently, he has become embroiled in a political slugfest over whether employees of his proposed Homeland Security Department can be safely granted civil service job protection.
But none of these fights provided the clear political sightlines that the battle over the Pacific ports appears to offer. Finally, the administration seems to believe, Bush can be seen as standing up to union intransigence and doing so in the name of protecting the economy and the nation's security.
"I think the White House sees this as ... an opportunity for Bush to look Reaganesque," said University of Texas economist James K. Galbraith.
In the fall of 1981, only 10 months after taking office, then-President Reagan caught nearly everybody by surprise--and secured his reputation for forceful action--by firing striking members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers union.
From the GOP point of view, Bush has an even more appealing target in the ILWU than Reagan did in the air-traffic controllers' strike. That's because the ILWU is one of the most aggressive unions left standing after decades of dwindling labor power, and its members are some of the most highly paid blue-collar workers in the country.
Labor historians said that there will be a special irony if the weapon the president ultimately uses against the union is Taft-Hartley. It was the 55-year-old law's requirement that labor leaders--but no other economic actors--sign anti-Communist pledges at the start of the Cold War that marked the ILWU as the most radical of American unions. Then-union leader Harry Bridges refused to sign, causing a politically jittery Congress of Industrial Organizations to drive the longshoremen out of the labor federation.
Administration officials were cautious Monday about any mention of Taft-Hartley. But the head of a national group representing firms that depend on West Coast ports felt no similar caution.
Robin Lanier, executive director of the West Coast Waterfront Coalition, an industry group, said that if the two sides don't swiftly reach a settlement, the administration should do "whatever it needs to reopen the ports, and that means invoking Taft-Hartley."
Officials with the Pacific Maritime Assn., which represents shipping lines and U.S.-based terminal operators in the dispute, painted the lockout as a last-ditch maneuver. But some labor experts said it appeared designed to provoke government intervention and revive stalled contract talks.
"Whatever the facts about the slowdown, the lockout is a tactic aimed at bringing in the Bush administration through Taft-Hartley," said William B. Gould IV, a former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board. Gould said a port shutdown could allow the administration to meet the law's requirement that there be a "threat to the national health and safety."
Proving to a federal court, which must approve any presidential back-to-work order, that such an emergency exists can be tricky. President Carter tried but failed during a national coal strike at the height of the energy crisis in 1978.
For that reason if no other, Bush administration officials moved carefully Monday, saying only that they wanted the two sides in the fight to come to Washington on Thursday to meet with federal mediators. But Republican political operatives were far less controlled.
"President Bush has a 65% approval rating where [Gov.] Gray Davis has 42%," GOP pollster Kinney said.
"Even in this state, the president is seen as decisive," and getting involved in the port shutdown is only going to make him appear more decisive.