Chicago Teacher Fight May Impact Presidential Politics

Mayor Rahm Emanuel's political ambition may factor into Chicago teacher strike.

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The teachers' union strike roiling Chicago politics has already become part of the presidential election conversation and experts say the longer it stretches on, the greater the chances it could affect the race's outcome.

High-profile clashes between cash-strapped state and local governments and public-sector unions have been dominating political spheres since 2010, when Republicans swept into power in state houses across the country. GOP Govs. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and John Kasich in Ohio have led the charge in reforming pensions and benefits to teachers and government workers.

[Photos: Chicago Teachers on Strike]

But in this case, it's a Democrat facing off with public workers.

When tens of thousands of teachers, members of the American Federation for Teachers union, in the country's third-largest school district refused to go to work on Monday after failing to reach a contract agreement with school board and city officials, it was Mayor Rahm Emanuel's reforms they opposed.

Emanuel, who swept into office on the promise of reforming the establishment, previously served as President Obama's chief-of-staff. And in addition to Chicago being Obama's hometown, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan also used to run the city's school system.

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney wasted no time in trying to tie Obama to the teachers, a traditionally Democratic interest group.

"Teachers unions have too often made plain that their interests conflict with those of our children, and today we are seeing one of the clearest examples yet," Romney said in a statement. "President Obama has chosen his side in this fight, sending his vice president last year to assure the nation's largest teachers union that 'you should have no doubt about my affection for you and the president's commitment to you.' I choose to side with the parents and students depending on public schools to give them the skills to succeed, and my plan for education reform will do exactly that."

The Obama campaign, meanwhile, tried to use the controversy to highlight education reforms pushed by the administration through the Race-to-the-Top program. The federal grant program rewarded states that enabled charter schools, teacher evaluations and other initiatives long opposed by teachers unions.

[Read: Mitt Romney launches swing-state advertising push.]

"President Obama's leadership has led to groundbreaking reforms in our schools, earning wide bipartisan cooperation and praise," said Ben LaBolt, an Obama campaign spokesman."In contrast, Gov. Romney has said class size isn't a problem and he would cut taxes for millionaires by gutting education funding, leading to fewer teachers."

Jay Carney, spokesman for the Obama administration, sought to avoid taking sides in the dispute when asked about it during the daily White House briefing.

"We hope that both sides are able to come together and solve this quickly," he said.

Already, the fallout has affected Obama's re-election campaign. Emanuel was recently tasked with amping up Democratic fundraising for their top Super PAC, Priorities USA. But the mayor announced Monday he would be backing away from that role to focus on his day job.

Rick Hess, director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, says the national political stakes are clear.

With Americans hyper-focused on government spending and budget cuts, politicians who can build credibility when it comes to making tough decisions benefit, whereas those who are seen as bending to the whim of interest groups, lose. In this case, the fight between Emanuel and the teachers union is almost a proxy battle for Obama.

"The stakes are pretty high," he says. "If the union loses this thing, if the perception is that the union folded, it's going to be a huge blow. After the failed recall on Walker, after what Indiana was able to do in dialing back collective bargaining, for it to look like the union tried to push back and then fold in Chicago would be a big deal. It really matters."