The Chicago Teachers’ Union strike is not coming at a good time for President Barack Obama.
With eight weeks to go before the election, it’s not only a distraction from the political campaign, it may also put him in a tough spot by forcing him to choose between supporting his labor union allies and his ex-chief of staff and most effective fundraiser.
Obama is already getting pressure to take a stand from the right and the left. Mitt Romney, who is arriving in Chicago for a fundraiser this evening, issued a statement accusing Obama of siding with teachers’ unions who “have too often made plain that their interests conflict with those of our children.”
Last year, Vice President Joe Biden told members of the Chicago Teachers’ Union that “you should have no doubt about my affection for you and the President’s commitment to you.”
Teachers unions were a straw man at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, where former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush told delegates, “You can either help the politically powerful unions. Or you can help the kids.”
Clearly, Romney is trying to force Obama to take a stand. Why else would he issue a statement on a local labor dispute? If he supports the strike, Romney will attack him as a panderer to public employee unions. Opposing it will make him look like a hypocrite and drive a wedge between Obama and Emanuel.
From the left, Obama is the target of an online petition, urging him to fulfill this promise he made during a 2007 campaign speech in Spartanburg, S.C.: “If American workers are being denied their right to organize and collectively bargain when I'm in the White House, I'll put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself, I'll walk on that picket line with you as President of the (USA). Because workers deserve to know that somebody is standing in their corner.”
Obama is refusing to be drawn into the dispute. This afternoon, his spokesman, Jay Carney, told reporters, "The president, as I think you just heard from me, has not expressed any opinion or made any assessment about this particular incident."
In the Washington Post, “The Fix” column outlined this dilemma for the president:
It’s Chicago: Yes, we know that President Obama has no role — either way — in the strike. But, that the strike is happening in Chicago, the town where President Obama made his political name doesn’t help him. And that the current Chicago mayor, Rahm Emanuel, was Obama’s first presidential chief of staff isn’t much help either. Remember that Republicans are doing everything they can to link Obama to Chicago and Chicago-style politics — thinking that it will turn off independents in the middle of the country. That the teachers strike will be at (or close to) the top of every evening news show until it ends allows Republicans a daily news peg to remind people that Obama is from the Windy City.
Emanuel has stopped fundraising to concentrate on the strike. Right now, the best service he can do for his ex-boss is to settle this before the first presidential debate on Oct. 3.
NBC Chicago has an array of reporters and producers covering the Chicago teacher strike. Check our live blog for continuous coverage and updates throughout the strike.