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Why Obama wants Chicago teachers strike to go away – fast

The Chicago teachers strike, which exposes a Democratic Party rift between support for unions and for the education reforms backed by Obama, could hardly come at a worse time for the president.

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So far, the Obama administration has limited itself to bland statements expressing hope that the strike is resolved quickly.

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When pressed to comment, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said simply that Obama’s “principal concern is for the students and families who are affected by the situation,” and that the administration hopes “both sides are able to come together to settle this quickly in the best interest of Chicago’s students.”

Meanwhile, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney was quick to criticize the union – and his campaign is working hard to link Obama with the striking teachers in voters’ minds.

In an interview on conservative talk radio Monday night, Romney said, “We know what it takes to fix our schools, and this strike in Chicago is a setting where I think you need to stand up and say, ‘Look, I’m with the kids and I’m with their parents, and I’m not with the teacher union.’ ”

And in a statement issued by his campaign, he was even more direct in using this against Obama, saying that “President Obama has chosen his side in this fight, sending his vice president last year to assure the nation's largest teachers union that 'you should have no doubt about my affection for you and the president's commitment to you.’ ”

He was referring to Vice President Joe Biden’s remarks to the National Education Association last year, trying to appease some union members angry over Obama education policies.

In fact, Obama has already risked alienating unions with his accountability-based education reforms that are sometimes more popular among Republicans and independents than liberal Democrats. But his need to court both constituencies – the Democratic base as well as swing voters – leaves him vulnerable to Romney’s attacks.

Chicago “is a high-profile test case of [Obama’s] reforms, with his high-profile chief of staff, so he can’t be seen as walking away or Romney can argue that he’s all talk,” says the AEI’s Hess.

Emanuel, in Chicago, was quick to rebut any statements from the Romney campaign as misguided attempts to score political points out of a local issue.

"While I appreciate [Romney’s] lip service, what really counts is what we are doing here," Emanuel told reporters Monday. "I don't give two hoots about national comments scoring political points or trying to embarrass – or whatever – the president.”

Another concern for Obama, says Professor Zelizer, is simply that the strike is a distraction that swamps national attention and saps energy from the campaign, while putting a controversial Democratic issue on the table.

“The campaign only has so much energy, now it has to devote time to this,” says Zelizer.

One potential positive: It’s a distraction from the economy. In a long-shot scenario, it could even be an opportunity for Obama if he can help the two sides reach a compromise.

And if the strike is resolved quickly, it won’t necessarily impact Obama at all.

“So far, it’s been a much bigger issue for Rahm Emanuel than Obama,” says Dick Simpson, a political scientist at the University of Illinois in Chicago and a former Chicago alderman. “We expect our Chicago mayors to bring everyone to the table and … avoid strikes. So far it’s been fine for President Obama to stay neutral in the matter.”

But if it drags on, that may change. Which is why the Obama campaign wants this strike wrapped up quickly – and is almost certainly exerting any pressure it can to make sure it doesn’t continue much longer.

“The White House’s best case is that this thing just lasts another day or two and everybody figures out some face-saving measure,” says Hess. “The president’s worst-case scenario is that people across the nation start paying attention to this, and the question becomes, ‘Is Obama going to stand with his reforms or with the unions?’ ”

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