Chicago Teacher Strike Puts Obama In Awkward Spot

President Obama has a delicate dance in dealing with the Chicago teachers strike. Unions are traditionally his staunchest supporters and enthusiastic campaigners. And while they're not happy with the reform policies his administration is pursuing, they're likely to stick with the president to a point. Mitt Romney meanwhile says he's on the side of parents and students.

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Now, to the potential political implications of the strike and how it might shake up the presidential race. Here's NPR's Brian Naylor.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: It may be of little comfort to Chicago's parents dealing with child care issues and their kids missing school or to the teachers walking the picket lines, but this strike is uncomfortable for President Obama, too. Chicago is his hometown, after all, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, his former chief of staff. His education secretary, Arne Duncan, is a former Chicago school superintendent and has pushed education reforms unpopular with teachers unions.

The president has said nothing publically about the strike, and Harley Shaiken, a professor at UC Berkley's Graduate School of Education, says the walkout isn't likely to hurt the president politically if it's short.

HARLEY SHAIKEN: I think all sides here in the Democratic fold understand the stakes in the November election. So I think the teachers, whatever the outcome in Chicago, will work very hard for the president's reelection.

NAYLOR: The teachers' unions are a key part of the Democratic coalition. The political action committees of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have contributed some two-and-a-half million dollars so far this election year to candidates, mostly Democrats. That includes $25,000 to the Obama campaign. That's despite qualms over the president's signature education program called Race to the Top. Among other things, it seeks to tie teacher evaluations and compensation to student performance.

Diane Ravitch, an education professor and historian at NYU, calls it vastly unpopular with teachers.

DIANE RAVITCH: The great risk to President Obama is that there are four million teachers, and that's a lot of votes. They all have family members who vote. And I believe they'll end up voting, but not with the enthusiasm that they had, and that makes a difference in terms of how many people go to the polls.

NAYLOR: For Republican Mitt Romney, it's a simpler equation. Republicans already have targeted public employee unions, dealing them a sharp setback in Wisconsin. UC Berkley professor Shaiken says a lingering walkout in Chicago will provide them with more fodder.

SHAIKEN: If it's a longer strike, the Republicans are certainly going to hammer away an attack on public sector unions in general, and the Chicago teachers will be exhibit A.

NAYLOR: Romney quickly chose sides, saying he was backing parents and students in Chicago.

MITT ROMNEY: I want our kids to have the skills they need for the jobs of tomorrow, and that means put our kids first and put the teachers' union behind.

NAYLOR: And in an unusual show of support, GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan says he and Romney, quote, "stand with Mayor Rahm Emanuel on this issue." Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the parent union of the striking teachers, says Romney is wrong to take sides in the dispute.

RANDI WEINGARTEN: Mitt Romney went out and immediately - instead of trying to say, what's going on here, instead of trying to figure out, you know, how can you actually help the teachers, help kids - he immediately went after the teachers. He immediately tried to pit teachers against kids, when people in Chicago are not doing that. No one wants a strike.

NAYLOR: Least of all the Obama administration, which clearly hopes this will be resolved soon, before it becomes more of an issue and a problem. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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