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Biden Present, Obama Absent at NEA Convention

NEA_Biden400.jpg

UPDATED

Vice President Joe Biden spoke to the National Education Association's 7,000-plus delegates today, in a speech which sought to draw stark contrasts between President Barack Obama and the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney.

"There's a pretty uniform view held by Mr. Romney and the Republicans in the majority in Congress today—they criticize and they blame you, they make you the fall guy. They should be thinking of ways to make your job easier, not more difficult. Instead they hector, they lecture, and they blame you," Biden said. "I can't think of a candidate for president who's ever made such a direct assault on such an honorable profession."

Biden took aim at Romney's policy proposal to allow Title I dollars for disadvantaged students. He called out Republicans for portraying teachers as "selfish" or in it for "an easy ride." He even dipped a toe in the pool of performance, noting that there are "some lousy teachers," but softened the remark by noting that any profession has a few bad apples.

It was, in other words, a highly effective speech that took the edge off what has to have been some disappointment, at least among the NEA's executives, that President Obama didn't himself show up to speak to delegates.

I queried the union about this turn of events earlier this morning.

"We have a champion for the middle class, a supporter of education, and she's bringing her husband, too," joked Ramona Oliver, the NEA's senior director for communications. (The vice president's wife, Jill Biden, an educator, was also in attendance.)

In seriousness, Oliver noted that some of the union's delegates lined up before 6 a.m. to go through the metal detectors in order to get a seat to listen to Biden speak. "They're incredibly excited," she said.

All the same, Obama's absence is notable. NEA was, after all, the first union to endorse the president for re-election. As my colleague Liana Heitin of Education Week Teacher reports, Obamamania is among the core themes of this year's RA.

Obama's relationship with the NEA has definitely been full of ups and downs. For two years running, before cinching the Democratic nomination, he spoke favorably of performance-based pay to the union. His pick for education secretary, Arne Duncan, has earned harsh words from NEA. His support for things like the Race to the Top program, which supports policies NEA eschews, has been repeatedly depicted in press reports as a kind of "Nixon Goes to China" moment. On the other hand, the great majority of the $100 billion in education stimulus funds went to support teachers' jobs and programs like the Title I grants.

In essence, we continue to witness a novel and interesting new dynamic between a Democratic president and the largest union in the country, and one that continues to have ramifications.

The union notes that thousands of its members have joined the "Educators for Obama" team—politically engaged members who have pledged to talk to colleagues and support electoral efforts in the fall. But given the NEA's recent membership declines, it's an open question of who needs whom more these days—the NEA, or the president.

Updated, 7/3, 12:34 pm. Apparently, the "optics" of Obama's absence were worrisome enough that the union's officials had a list of talking points on the matter, which were sent to me a few minutes ago by a source.

Photo: Vice President Joe Biden salutes after arriving to speak before the 2012 National Educational Association annual meeting on July 3 in Washington. (Evan Vucci/AP)

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