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Obama Campaign on Teachers' Strike: It's Not a Political Distraction

The Chicago teachers' strike, now in its second week, is becoming such a political issue that it was the subject of three questions during a half-hour press briefing today with White House and Obama campaign officials.

I've pasted the entire back-and-forth below, but a few curious things popped out at me.

First, Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, no, she doesn't think this is becoming a distraction and that plenty of union members are still "working for" the president, even as they work to resolve the dispute. She maintained that "no one thinks ... that a local political dispute is representative of the national debate we're having about education."

But this dispute seems somewhat representative. Isn't the struggle for power between unions and politicians—whether they be Democrats or Republicans—representative of what's going on in various parts of the country? Isn't the focus on using student performance in teacher evaluations a central part of the Obama administration's education agenda, and a key issue in the strike? And aren't some of the tensions on the table in Chicago—school closings and shakeups—part of the School Improvement Grant program the administration put its stamp on?

Second, Psaki maintained—once again—that reducing class size is a priority of the Obama administration. But when you look at the priorities embedded in Obama's various Race to the Top competitions, reducing class size is not among them. Even his education secretary, Arne Duncan, has questioned its value. Certainly, the president believes in protecting investments in education, and saving teacher jobs. But that's a little different than believing that reducing class size is a priority.

Lastly, it's worth noting that deputy press secretary Josh Earnest said that Obama has not talked to his former chief of staff and current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who is front-and-center in this battle with the unions.

Here's the transcript from today's media briefing:

Q: Is the campaign concerned about the ongoing Chicago teachers' strike, as to whether that will affect the President's union support at all and even just take away people who might be working on the ground in states like Wisconsin and neighboring places to Illinois?

MS. PSAKI: Well, first, everybody's priority, including everybody on the campaign, including the White House, is to ensure that the teachers and the students can get back to school. This isn't an issue that the campaign has been involved in. I know there's been a variety of reports.

It is an issue, as it relates to the political campaign and education in general. I know [GOP presidential nominee] Mitt Romney—we know Mitt Romney has raised this and tried to make this into a national issue. No one thinks, including the people who are involved in this, that a local political dispute is representative of the national debate we're having about education.

When you look at the contrast and the records, President Obama has taken historic, innovative efforts—has made a historic, innovative efforts to reform the education system—many efforts, including Race to the Top, that Mitt Romney himself has applauded. He has increased the budget for education while he's cut other programs because he thinks it's so important. And he has made reducing class sizes an issue that is not only a priority for him, one he talks about on the campaign trail; while Mitt Romney has said it's not a big deal, and he's ready to slash education funding. So to that—in that regard, that's how this issue will play. Education itself we think is an important debate—is an important part of the debate.

If you look at—and we can't speak for union members, we can't speak to the leaders of the teachers' union, but they have said similar—made similar comments to what I said, that this is—education is, of course, an important part of the debate. Many of them are still out there supporting the president, working for the president, even while this is being resolved, as much as that's a priority. And we hope and expect that to be the case between now and November.

Q: Has the president or anyone in the administration spoken to Mayor Emanuel at any point, or anybody involved in the [Chicago Teachers Union]?

MR. EARNEST: I don't have any specific calls to read out to you, but it is the president's hope that both sides are going to put the interest of Chicago students and Chicago children at the top of the priority list. And if they do that, then this is something that will get resolved sooner rather than later.

Q: Do you see it as a distraction at all just in terms of the ground game—not in terms of the policy, but in terms of getting people out, to be working, knocking on doors right now?

MS. PSAKI: Well, I think it's everyone's hope that this is resolved and that teachers and students can go back to school, and then they can come to an agreement in Chicago. As I mentioned earlier, the same people who are out there trying to resolve this, many of the teachers, many of the union members who are in other states, many of them have made clear they absolutely think the president offers a better choice on education issues, on workers' rights issues that are being debated.

And so we don't expect that with the hope this is going to be resolved soon, that this is going to be an issue beyond education as an issue that itself—that will be debated later in this campaign.

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