Why is Obama taking on teachers' unions right before Election 2010?

The teachers' union vote is reliably Democratic. Yet before Election 2010, widely seen as a difficult one for Democrats, teachers feel that Obama is antagonizing them with his reform agenda.

Richard Drew/AP
President Obama is interviewed on the NBC 'Today Show' and broadcast to an audience in New York at the NBC News' Education Nation Summit on Monday.

Why is President Obama pushing so hard against teachers right now, weeks before the election?

On NBC's "Today Show" Monday morning, Mr. Obama told host Matt Lauer that “nothing’s more important than education,” and advocated for controversial reforms, including getting rid of the worst teachers.

He also pushed for a longer school year and admitted that his daughters would not get as good an education in the Washington, D.C., public schools as they get at Sidwell Friends, the private school they attend.

“I’ll be blunt with you. The answer is ‘no’ right now,” he said, when asked by a Florida woman whether Sasha and Malia could get the same quality education at a Washington school. He added that “there are some terrific individual schools in the D.C. system” but said that it is “struggling.”

And while Obama emphasized the importance of teachers – and announced plans to recruit 10,000 science, technology, engineering, and math (or STEM) teachers over the next few years – he clearly seemed prepared to ruffle some union feathers.

“You’ve got to have radical change, and radical change is something that’s in the interest of students,” he said. “We’ve got to be able to identify teachers who are doing well ... and ultimately, if some teachers aren’t doing a good job, they’ve got to go.”

He also said that “money without reform” will not fix the education system, and encouraged unions to “be part of the solution.”

With the release of “Waiting for ‘Superman’”, the education-themed documentary from "An Inconvenient Truth" director Davis Guggenheim, education is suddenly on the public mind. And it seems likely to become even more so when the movie expands beyond four theaters this Friday.

In the movie, teachers’ unions are the villains, standing in the way of reforms kids need and protecting the jobs of even the most horrendous teachers.

So perhaps Obama is counting on his message resonating with independent voters and the many Americans who are likely to see the movie and start rooting for change?

Even so, it’s a somewhat risky move given that educators are such a key part of Democrats’ base – and many are already growing tired of what they see as an administration that vilifies teachers.

Look for more of a showdown over education within the Democratic Party in coming weeks and months. Teachers – some in Superman costumes – have already protested outside some of the New York theaters showing the movie, while education-reform advocates announced the “largest ever education reform coalition” on Monday.

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