Why the Chicago teachers strike is bad news for President Obama

September 10, 2012

For the first time in nearly three decades, Chicago public school teachers went on strike this morning.   At first glance, you might be tempted to think that what happens in Chicago has little to no effect on the politics of Washington and the presidential race. But, you'd be wrong.

There are several reasons to believe that what happens in Chicago could have a real -- and negative -- impact on President Obama and the broader race for the White House this fall. We list the three biggest reasons below.

* 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.

* Labor, distracted: Organized labor has experienced a series of major setbacks over the past few years -- from losing a Democratic primary challenge to Sen. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) in 2010 to coming up well short against Gov. Scott Walker in the 2012 recall race.  Those losses make it very difficult for labor's credibility to weather ANOTHER high profile defeat in Chicago. If labor loses this fight it may be a sort of death blow to its longstanding image as the big bully (in a good way) in politics. With stakes that high, the showdown in Chicago is going to be a top-of-the-mind issue for labor strategists and allies until it's resolved. And that means that labor's attention is divided, which isn't a good thing for the Obama campaign who need unions' full attention this fall.

* Rahm, distracted: Less than a week ago, my colleague Peter Wallsten reported that Rahm was taking over the fundraising effort for Priorities USA Action, the leading Democratic super PAC that has struggled so far to come close to matching the financial might of its conservative rivals.  While we know Rahm is a gifted multi-tasker, it's hard to imagine that with the biggest -- and most consequential -- fight of his mayorship now joined that he is going to find much time to court the massive donors the party needs to write massive checks as soon as possible.  If the strike gets itself resolved in short order, this likely won't be a major issue but if it drags on, the political calendar starts to become Democrats' enemy.  In order to make a difference, you need the money in the bank sooner rather than later so it can be effectively spent. (UPDATE: Emanuel suspended his fundraising activities for the super PAC to concentrate on the strike today.)

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Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Chris Cillizza · September 10, 2012