By DAVID FEITH
Rahm Emanuel is his generation's most noted political pugilist, the guy who once mailed a dead fish to a fellow Democratic operative whose work had disappointed him. In 1992 he celebrated Bill Clinton's presidential victory with a steak knife and an enemies list, stabbing a table and screaming "dead" as he recited each name. Over time Mr. Emanuel's drive has made him a leader in Congress, chief of staff to President Obama and now the mayor of Chicago.
So you'd think that "Rahmbo" would be the perfect leader—a popular, bona fide progressive reformer unafraid to speak his mind—to stand up for students and parents by facing down the Chicago Teachers Union's first strike in 25 years. But when the teachers walked off the job on Monday and the strike wore on, the political force of nature seemed hesitant to brawl.
Sitting for an interview on Tuesday in a reception room overlooking Chicago's Millennium Park, with union members marching in the street, Mr. Emanuel presents himself as a man looking to make a deal. According to news reports at press time, he's likely to sign one this weekend.
An education showdown that had the makings of a national breakthrough—the highest-profile sign yet that, regardless of party, politicians are dedicated to bringing accountability to public schools—might be ending with a whimper. Members of the Chicago Teachers Union will reportedly receive 16% raises, over three years, in exchange for accepting a new teacher-evaluation system that relies partly, but not heavily, on student test scores.
How did it come to this? Consider the calendar. We're seven weeks from a presidential election in which Barack Obama needs all the cash and foot soldiers that organized labor can provide. His Super PAC's chief fundraiser is none other than Rahm Emanuel. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party's chief funders remain teachers unions, groups that also accounted for an estimated 20% of delegates at the recent Democratic National Convention. So you can imagine why Chicago's unionized teachers struck now, gambling that Mr. Emanuel's killer instinct may be stayed at least for the season.
"I understand the strong feelings on the other side," Mr. Emanuel says of the union. In describing the negotiations' sticking points, such as how teachers will be evaluated and whether principals will be free to hire whom they want, his themes are conciliation and cooperation.
"They're worried that 6,000 of the teachers won't pass" the evaluation, he says. "I am more confident they will. That said, the system was actually over a year developed in collaboration with 2,000 teachers, so they have their thumbprints all over the design of this. . . . I can't think of anything more respectful to the profession."
What Mr. Emanuel doesn't note is the bankrupt status quo: 99.7% of Chicago teachers are rated satisfactory while the graduation rate is just 60%, only 20% of eighth-graders are proficient in reading and less than 8% of 11th-graders are college-ready on state tests. Fixing such a system is a moral imperative, and Chicago's mayor might have encouraged parents and taxpayers to see it that way. But then it would have been harder for him to celebrate Friday's reported compromise on an evaluation framework far weaker than, for example, the one Michelle Rhee designed when she ran the schools in Washington, D.C.
When I ask Mr. Emanuel why he hasn't focused his school-reform push on parents, taxpayers and public opinion generally, he disputes my premise. He has engaged the public, he says, especially around the extension of Chicago's school day and academic year, which had been the shortest in the country. Those changes are "very, very popular," he says. "We finally added an hour and 15 minutes so we're not picking between math and music, we're not picking between reading and recess, we're not picking between algebra and arts."
Also popular with parents, he says, are a new core curriculum with "the most rigorous educational standards ever," a merit-pay system for principals, report cards for parents on schools' overall performance, and the establishment of five high schools focused on science, technology, engineering and math.
Fair enough, but don't Chicago's parents and taxpayers have opinions on, say, fiscal issues? The average Chicago public-school teacher is the best-paid in the country, making between $71,000 (the union's calculation) and $76,000 (the city's). And that's not counting benefits and pensions, paid days off, summer vacation and more. Teachers in New York and Los Angeles earn slightly less, and then the list drops off dramatically, with Dallas and Miami paying around $53,000 on average.
In addition, an arbitrator found this summer that Chicago's teachers got raises of 19%-46% over the past five years—not the fattest of economic times for most Americans. The median household income in Chicago today is $47,000. As for the students in Chicago public schools, 84% live at or near the poverty line, which is roughly $27,000 for a family of three. The Arnold Foundation calculates that the average Chicago family has a $42,000 liability from promises made over the years by city politicians to government unions.
Given all this, shouldn't parents be up in arms at the union's demand for a guaranteed raise of 30%, or even 16%? Yet a Chicago Sun-Times poll published Monday found that 47% of registered voters support the teachers strike, with 39% opposed. Perhaps this is because Mr. Emanuel rarely mentions the fiscal numbers in public.
Similarly, he tells me that the strike "is clearly testing parents," but it's not clear what he's doing to channel their frustration in a useful direction. Months ago he said the union was giving students "the shaft," but his rhetoric softened as negotiations broke down. He calls the strike "unnecessary." Working parents who had to make emergency child-care arrangements might have used more colorful words—the kind that Mr. Emanuel was famous for employing in another life.
The Obama administration is also avoiding a fight, offering evenhanded assessments of Mr. Emanuel and the teachers union. The president "has not expressed any opinion or made any assessment of this particular incident," said White House spokesman Jay Carney—"this incident" being the teachers strike.
Mr. Emanuel acknowledges that none of the education reforms he's pushing is opposed by President Obama. The mayor adds that the reforms are all in the same spirit of accountability and measuring student improvement that motivated the Obama administration's $4.5 billion Race to the Top grant program. Yet he evinces no disappointment at not earning the administration's endorsement of his negotiating position.
"While I'm interested in [national] politics—I like politics, it's a pastime of mine," he jokes, "my interest, my energy, my time and focus is here" in Chicago.
Still, I say, it's politically significant that a beleaguered labor movement chose to take an election-season stand against one of President Obama's closest confidants. After all, no one can accuse Rahm Emanuel of being a union-buster or some stooge of the Koch brothers. "I understand the symbolism . . . but my interest isn't the national," the mayor says. "I personally think that a voter in a battleground state of Ohio [will think], 'That's the kids in Chicago, let them figure it out.' I don't think that's going to be what a voter in Ohio, Iowa, Colorado is going to vote on.
But aren't issues of fiscal mismanagement increasingly prominent all across the country? I ask Mr. Emanuel whether voters are concerned, for example, that in Illinois, 71 cents of every new education dollar goes to teachers' retirement benefits, not to schools; or that while the average Indiana resident owes $81 in debt for unfunded retiree health benefits, the average Illinoisan owes $3,399.
"Look, given all the data you have that the president is up in Ohio [polls], I think what they actually care about also is his decision on the auto industry," Mr. Emanuel says. "Since we got data, let me give one piece of data. One out of six jobs in Ohio are related to the auto industry. . . . So when you ask me whether people in Ohio care, they care about their jobs and Ohio's economy, which is a full point better in employment than the nation. And that's a direct beneficiary of the president's decisions."
Then he pivots to his own Chicago. "I balanced our budget, cut taxes, cut regulation, invested in the reforms that I know would improve outcomes not just in the bureaucracy but in health care, in recycling." He also didn't increase property or sales taxes. The result, he says, is that next year's city budget, once projected to have a $741 million gap, will be only $369 million short.
But if Mr. Emanuel wants Chicago to be a national model for how active government can help rescue the middle class, his battles have just begun. The city's budget gap is expected to approach $600 million in 2015, the same year that more than $500 million in police and firefighter pension payments kick in. Meanwhile, the schools budget, which is separate from the general city budget, is expected to be $3 billion short over the next three years.
The mayor's immediate challenge is to finalize the teachers' contract without folding on the remaining issues—especially the union's demand that laid-off teachers get dibs on new job openings. Then there will be negotiations with various other public unions. In education, there will inevitably be fights over the mayor's support for charter schools. And he will have to decide whether to enact "parent trigger" rules (which he endorsed as a candidate) so parents can petition to force change at persistently failing schools.
Along the way, politically powerful unions will want to protect their perks. Mr. Emanuel, the consummate political animal, is trying to avoid a knockdown, drag-out labor fight while still wringing enough reforms from the union to convince voters that his legacy will be better schools. His report card will depend on student results.
Mr. Feith is an assistant features editor at the Journal editorial page.
A version of this article appeared September 15, 2012, on page A11 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Rahmbo at the School Barricades.