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Will Obama Be Forced to Pick Sides in the Blue Civil War?
This isn’t how Team Obama drew up its reelection plans. Teacher unions were supposed to be coming out in force against big bad Republicans like Scott Walker, in battleground states like Wisconsin, where the campaign could sell a narrative of Koch-funded extremism to a fearful voting public. But now the teachers are striking in deep-blue Chicago, the president’s home town, against Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff and a major fundraiser:
Eager to improve Chicago’s schools, Mr. Emanuel has taken several steps — among them pressing the school board to rescind a promised 4 percent raise — and made numerous demands that have infuriated the Chicago Teachers Union. He wants student test performance to count heavily in evaluating teachers for tenure, even though the union insists that is a highly unreliable way to assess teachers. And with Mr. Emanuel intent on shuttering dozens of poorly performing schools, the union is pressing him to agree to strong provisions to reinstate teachers in other schools when theirs are closed.
Teacher unions are increasingly isolated around the country, and strikes like this do nothing to help their cause in the court of public opinion. Chicago teachers, with average pay for nine months of work that easily exceeds the median family income for people who work all 12, make unsympathetic characters. It also doesn’t help their cause that the root of the strike appears to be their resistance to being evaluated based on performance: they want to keep their life tenure jobs.

This strike brings into stark relief the enormity of the gap in the blue coalition. On one side of this chasm lie the consumers of government services, and on the other, the producers. Do you favor high wages, lifetime security and good pensions for state and municipal workers, including teachers? Then you stand with Chicago’s teachers. Do you favor more services at affordable prices in cities and towns across America? Then you stand with politicians like Emanuel, as well as many parents and voters.

This raises an obvious question: where does the president stand? Thus far, Obama is studiously saying nothing. His sympathies are probably with Rahm, his old chief of staff. But if he went public with those sympathies, he would probably alienate organized labor in the run-up to an election where turnout will be vital. On the other hand, to side with the teachers would likely lose him the election by tagging him with one of the least popular causes around. And saying nothing and dodging the issue will make him look weak and will make everybody angry. This is likely one of the reasons his challenger Mitt Romney is already pressing him to pick a side on the issue.

This is President Obama’s first big test of the fall campaign. Let’s see how he decides.

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