A teachers union strike in Chicago is causing political heartburn at the White House, with President Obama forced to distance himself from his former chief of staff as Republicans accuse him of siding with big labor interests over students.
"Yet again, President Obama is allowing special interests to put their agenda ahead of serving our nation's students," said Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican. "This is Chicago-style politics at its worst."
With just eight weeks to go before the election, the strike in Obama's hometown couldn't have come at a worse time for him, political analysts say.
It creates a campaign distraction and presents an awkward conflict of interest between teachers unions, a powerful Democratic constituency, and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama's former chief of staff, who recently took over fundraising activities for Priorities USA Action, the super-PAC supporting Obama's re-election.
Republican nominee Mitt Romney is using the conflict to highlight Obama's political ties to the unions, which Romney said "have too often made plain that their interests conflict with those of our children."
"President Obama has chosen his side in this fight," Romney said. "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."
To support that claim, Romney referred to Vice President Biden's remarks during an address to the National Education Association in 2011, in which Biden said, "You should have no doubt about my affection for you and the president's commitment to you."
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Obama's "principal concern" is for the students in the president's hometown of Chicago.
But pressed by reporters on whether Obama will take a side on the issue, Carney said, "We simply hope that it gets resolved. ... We certainly haven't expressed an opinion on how it should be resolved."
Emanuel called Romney's remarks "lip service."
"While I appreciate his lip service, what really counts is what we are doing here," the Chicago mayor said. "I don't give two hoots about national comments scoring political points or trying to embarrass -- or whatever -- the president."
National labor groups condemned Romney and Republicans for "politicizing" the protest.
"Chicago's students, teachers and educational support staff -- in fact, the entire city of Chicago -- deserve a school system that works for everyone," said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. "That is what this strike is about."
But Republicans aren't planning to back down. Over the course of a couple hours on Monday, Romney's campaign issued half a dozen campaign statements from various surrogates blasting Obama for favoring unions over students.
"Once again, President Obama has put the interests of organized labor ahead of the American people," said former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a top Romney surrogate. "By refusing to condemn the Chicago teachers union strike, the president has sent a clear message that the hundreds of thousands of children who are suffering because of this strike take a back seat to his political allies."