Everyone knows a teacher strike is bad for a mayor, and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel surely never envisioned that his attempts to push through certain education reforms would lead to this.
The strike in the nation’s third-largest district – leaving some 350,000 children out of school, while 29,000 teachers and support staff strike – is in the president’s hometown, less than two months before the election. Mayor Emanuel is Obama’s former chief of staff, and Arne Duncan, the president’s education secretary, is the former head of Chicago Public Schools.
But more than anything, the strike points to the heart of the rift within the Democratic Party over education issues, with the union on one side and “new Democrats” and their accountability-based reforms on the other. Even more pointedly, the issues at stake in Chicago don’t involve salary or money so much as those very accountability reforms that Obama, and Secretary Duncan, have championed.
The key challenge for Obama: how to avoid angering union voters just before an election while at the same time not turning his back on his education platform, which is fairly popular with independent voters and some moderate Democrats.
Obama “has to split his time in some ways between supporting the teachers’ unions, but also [being] a new Democrat in favor of education reform,” says Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public policy at Princeton University in New Jersey. “He’s in a bind, and this could last a little while – it’s not one of the issues he wants front and center right now.”
The rift within the Democratic Party over education reform, and in particular the anger on the part of many teachers against some Obama policies and what they see as anti-teacher sentiment, has been building for some time. But in Chicago, it seems to be coming to a head.
The key sticking points in the negotiations – teacher evaluations that include at least some reliance on student growth on test scores, and whether principals at new schools can hire teachers at their own discretion or will be somewhat limited to previously laid-off Chicago teachers – are issues that the Obama administration has aggressively pushed.
Other issues that have angered the union, including merit pay (which the city has caved on), implementing a longer school day (which Emanuel won, after finding a compromise in which teachers won’t actually have to work longer hours), and charter schools, are also ones that Obama and Duncan support.
“The kind of reforms that have gotten [Obama] big plaudits – teacher accountability, charter schools, school turnarounds – are highly unpopular with the teacher unions, and unions are a core part of the Democratic base,” says Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.
“If Obama were comfortably ahead [in the polls], this would be a wonderful Sister Souljah moment for him,” Mr. Hess adds. “Unions aren’t going to Romney. But if it seems like he’s backstabbing the unions, that could start to dominate the news cycle and could suppress turnout on the left. With the election as tight as it is in Ohio and Wisconsin, that’s not a risk the White House wants to take.”
So far, the Obama administration has limited itself to bland statements expressing hope that the strike is resolved quickly.
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.”
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.’ ”
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?’ ”