But a strike by 26,000 public school teachers in Chicago that began Monday threatens to place Obama at odds with a critical segment of his political base in the final weeks of a campaign in which he has little margin for error. At the center of the dispute is his famously blunt former chief of staff, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D), who is pushing aggressively for policies the president has championed: higher academic standards, longer school days and greater teacher accountability.
Obama has much to lose, and administration officials are working behind the scenes to end the conflict, which appeared headed into its third day. If Emanuel, who is closely associated with the president, is seen as knuckling under to union demands, critics could depict Obama as in thrall to public-sector employees who locked 350,000 children out of school.
Should Emanuel be perceived as the victor, the president could lose valuable ground with the most powerful forces in organized labor.
“It’s hard to extricate the White House from what’s happening in Chicago right now,” said Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, a political group that has aired ads in support of Obama’s agenda and, most recently, run radio spots in Chicago to pressure the union to go along with Emanuel’s policies.
The American Federation of Teachers — the national parent organization of striking Chicago instructors — and the National Education Association boast a combined membership of 4.5 million. Democratic candidates up and down the ballot depend on teachers to hold rallies, staff phone banks and canvass neighborhoods in get-out-the-vote efforts that often make the difference in close races.
“In terms of putting resources up and boots on the ground, those unions are important,” said Steve Rosenthal, a longtime union organizer who is active in Democratic politics. “If they’re distracted, it’s not helpful. If there’s lingering anger and animosity, it’s not helpful.”
Rosenthal added that labor leaders could expect Obama to speak up on behalf of the teachers.
“It’s a high-visibility strike, and there are expectations that Democrats will stand with striking workers,” he said.
Publicly, the administration has taken a hands-off approach to the dispute, in which the most contentious issue is a city proposal to raise from 25 percent to 40 percent the portion of a teacher’s evaluation that is based on students’ improved test scores.
“I hope that the parties will come together to settle this quickly and get our kids back in the classroom,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement Tuesday afternoon. “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.”