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McFeatters: Chicago teachers' strike may create trouble for Obama

The Chicago teachers' strike has huge implications for the Obama administration.

If it drags on long enough, the strike that began Monday will inevitably draw comparisons to the tough stand taken by Republican governors in Wisconsin, Ohio and New Jersey against public employee unions. Almost inevitably, it will have Republicans waxing nostalgic for President Ronald Reagan's firing of striking air traffic controllers in 1981.

But these are Chicago city employees, and there's little President Barack Obama can do about it except walk a fine line between the teachers' unions, among his strongest supporters, and his education reforms -- some of them at issue in Chicago -- that they largely oppose.

Much as he would probably like to, Obama cannot totally distance himself from this contentious labor dispute of at least 26,000 striking teachers, affecting more than 350,000 students and, of course, their parents.

The mayor of Chicago is Rahm Emanuel, Obama's former White House chief of staff, longtime political operative and the man most recently charged with galvanizing pro-Obama super PACs. Obama's education secretary is Arne Duncan, who was chief executive of Chicago Public Schools from 2001 through 2008.

Unions, generally no matter the justice of their cause, almost always enter a strike on the losing side of the public relations battle and face a tremendous hurdle in winning over public opinion.

The Illinois State Board of Education says the average Chicago teacher has a tenure of 13.7 years and a salary of $71,200. The offer on the table is a 16 percent pay raise over four years. It is a generous proposal and one that the school system -- now running a deficit it estimates at $712 million -- can't afford.

To the thousands of teachers who have lost their jobs elsewhere, this has to look like a pretty good deal. Randi Weingarten, president of the Chicago union's parent American Federation of Teachers, blamed the strike on teachers feeling "completely disrespected." That may not strike most people as sufficient reason for shutting down the nation's third-largest school system.

Emanuel had infuriated the teachers by extending its shorter-than-average school day and rescinding a 4 percent pay raise. He also wants to increase the role that improving test scores play in teacher evaluations and has balked at a union demand that laid-off teachers have first crack at jobs elsewhere.

Republicans, momentarily forgetting their own Chris Christie for a second, portrayed the strike as typical of the bare-knuckled Chicago political milieu that produced Obama. GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney said it was a typical example of teachers unions placing their interests over those of the children.

For Obama, the only good that can come out of this strike is a quick end.