By Bernie Becker - 09/12/12 09:00 AM EDT
Congressional Democrats from Illinois are treading carefully around the teacher strike in Chicago, underscoring the political squeeze the situation has created for President Obama.
Chicago-area Democrats — including several who have relatives in the school system — refrained from taking sides in the strike on Tuesday, saying that both they and the White House should give city leaders space to hash out an agreement.
“I did multiplication tables with him yesterday and we had gym and I did math. I’m sure like others, we’re struggling with the situation,” Gutierrez said. “I hope everyone sits at the bargaining table and resolves it as quickly as possible.”
Gutierrez and other Illinois Democrats were wary of commenting on the roughly 26,000 teachers currently off the job, even as the Republican presidential ticket slammed Obama on the issue and gleefully sided with Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff.
“I think what we need to do is solve the problem locally, and not let it turn into a national or an international event,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “This is only going to be solved at the table in Chicago.”
The responses illustrate the delicate election-year situation that Obama faces with the strike — and not just because it’s occurring in his adopted hometown, and under a trusted former aide.
On the one hand, siding with Emanuel could be a political winner with independents who are skeptical of unions and concerned about education.
But Obama would risk angering the labor movement, a key part of his base and his grassroots machine, if he makes statements supportive of Emanuel.
Teachers unions already have a complicated history with Obama despite endorsing him in 2008 and in this cycle. They have had serious qualms with Race to the Top, an administration reform effort that allows states to compete for education grants.
“This is one of those things — you’re darned if you do, and darned if you don’t,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the chairman of a key Senate panel for education policy.
Obama has been quiet on the strike thus far, with his campaign having accused Republicans of playing politics on the issue. The president’s administration has also stressed that its major concern is the affected families, a line that Education Secretary Arne Duncan emphasized in a Tuesday statement.
“I’m confident that both sides have the best interests of the students at heart, and that they can collaborate at the bargaining table — as teachers and school districts have done all over the country — to reach a solution that puts kids first,” said Duncan, a former chief executive of Chicago schools.
The issue appears to be more clear-cut for the GOP, especially in light of Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) battles with public-sector unions in Wisconsin.
Republicans have historically backed school choice, with the party’s most recent platform supporting home schooling, charter schools and other options.
Both members of the GOP ticket, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, have tried to make political hay of the strike, saying they side with parents and students over the unions.
Ryan, a Wisconsin congressman who served with Emanuel in the House, went so far as to explicitly back Emanuel’s efforts to wring concessions from the teachers.
“We know that Rahm is not going to support our campaign, but on this issue and this day we stand with Mayor Rahm Emanuel,” Ryan said at a Monday night fundraiser in Oregon.
But while Democrats on Capitol Hill were loath to insert themselves directly into the controversy, they had no problems calling out Republicans for baldly playing politics.
They said it was rich that Republicans were attempting to make the strike a national issue, after saying for years that states and localities should have more control over education.
And, they added, the House GOP budget largely crafted by Ryan includes cuts to education.
“I saw the headline, ‘Paul Ryan: I stand with Rahm Emanuel.’ Really? I don’t think so,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who said she has two grandchildren in Chicago schools. “I resent that.”
Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), who took over Emanuel’s seat in Congress, said Obama needs to take a national view on education, and shouldn’t just weigh in because the current strike is happening in his hometown.
“He’s president of the United States, and it’s a cheap shot by Romney,” Quigley said. “And it doesn’t really influence anything, and the president should go about his business.”
Either way, the Democrats didn’t appear to be concerned that the strike would play much of a role in a presidential campaign that has largely focused on economic issues — and one in which both candidates have been criticized for being light with policy details.
“I expect that in a few days this is going to be resolved, and everybody will ‘Kumbaya,’ and that’ll be that,” Schakowsky said.
— Daniel Strauss, Mario Trujillo and Justin Sink contributed to this report.