"We can't sacrifice investments in the future," Obama said. "There's no room for division between business and labor and Democrats and Republicans."
But the split-screen images of Obama cheering on business owners while the labor unions so critical to Democratic Party election prospects were screaming foul did little reinforce the president's message that there are shared stakes in reshaping the economy as it emerges from one of the worst recessions in the nation's history.
The labor unrest in Ohio followed an attempt by Republican Gov. John Kasich to roll back employee pension benefits and collective bargaining rights to help plug an $8 billion budget deficit. The situation is similar to events in Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker called for similar cuts in workers' rights and benefits in the name of budget savings.
National labor expert Marick Masters said the labor protests are likely to follow Obama into the 2012 presidential campaign.
"What happens in Wisconsin and Ohio will have a snowballing effect on the rest of the states ... and set a tone that will be very much felt in Washington, D.C.," said Masters, director of Wayne State University's Douglas A. Fraser Center for Workplace Issues.
Obama is already trying to balance his interests. His campaign organization is aiding union protesters in Wisconsin, but the president made no mention of the Ohio protests while in Cleveland, instead clinging to an agenda that would promote his budget proposals to small business owners.
Analysts are split on whether Obama's silence Tuesday would help or hurt unions.
"Union leaders probably think that the president's direct involvement [in the protests] won't do anything to help the debate and will only make it worse," Masters said.
But University of Massachusetts professor Tom Juravich said the president is risking the support of labor leaders by distancing himself from the issue.
"He needs to reach out and take a stronger role," said Juravich, a labor studies professor. "Union members are the foot soldiers in the campaign and I think the president needs to remember that."
Obama has voiced support for measures that would clamp down on states' ballooning pension deficits, even at the peril of public employee benefits. But he is opposing any changes to employees' collective bargaining rights.
Conservative commentators say Obama's support of union interests over budget-cutting measures is another example of the president's inability to "make the tough cuts."
"I don't think it's terribly helpful for him to criticize a Republican governor who is trying to cut down on his budget deficit when Obama is doing nothing for the federal deficit," said James Sherk, senior labor policy analyst for the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation.
But the struggle between unions and Republicans has more to do with politics than fixing the budget, Sherk said.
"It's about who controls the government: Do the voters, through their elected representatives, or do the unions?" he said.