Updated with Romney react, Duncan comments...
WASHINGTON--President Barack Obama--in his first full comments about the Chicago teachers strike-- accused Mitt Romney of "teacher bashing" in an interview broadcast Tuesday.
At the same time, Obama said it was "important" for Mayor Rahm Emanuel to ask teachers to "step up" their game--but it was not right, Obama said, to blame teachers "for a lot of big problems out there."
Obama made his comments to NBC's Savannah Guthrie, broadcast Tuesday on NBC's "Today Show." The interview was taped when Obama was in Milwaukee on Saturday.
Obama refused to take sides in the Chicago Teachers' Union strike--balancing his friendship with Emanuel, his former chief of staff, and a political need not to alienate organized labor. Mitt Romney and other Republicans sided with Emanuel, adding a presidential campaign component to the Chicago labor struggle.
Education Sec. Arne Duncan, the former Chicago Public Schools chief--who, following Obama's lead also did not take sides in the walkout-- talked about the strike in a Tuesday morning MSNBC interview: "Obviously, no one wants a strike, teachers didn't want it, management didn't want it. But at the end of the day Chicago got to a great place, they got a great contract that honors and respects teachers and values them as the professionals they are and helps, continues to drive the reform movement forward in Chicago."
Unions are a major element of the Democratic base. Guthrie asked Obama if the Chicago episode showed Democrats were "no longer kowtowing to the unions. Is that how you see it?"
"That's not how I see it. What I see is that all across the country people want results. It was very important, I think, for Mayor Emanuel to say let's step up our game. And it was important for the teachers' union also to say let's make sure we're not just blaming teachers for a lot of big problems out there; let's make sure we've got the resources," Obama said.
"So I'm glad it was resolved. But I do think that, from the perspective of Democrats, we can't just sit on the status quo or say that money is the only issue. Reform is important also."
Obama rejected Romney's assertion that he sided with the unions--and as a byproduct blocked school reform.
"I think Governor Romney and a number of folks try to politicize the issue and do a lot of teacher bashing. When I meet teachers all across the country, they are so devoted, so dedicated to their kids. And what we've tried to do is actually break through this left-right, conservative-liberal gridlock."
Guthrie asked Obama, "Can you really say that teachers' unions aren't slowing the pace of reform?"
Replied Obama, "I just really get frustrated when I hear teacher bashing as evidence of reform. My sister is a former teacher, and I can tell you that they work so hard. They're putting money out of their own pockets in the classroom every single day. They're not doing it for the pay. And, you know, what is absolutely true is if we've got a bad teacher, we should be able to train them to get better. And if they can't get better, they should be able to get fired."
Turning to the difficulties of educating impoverished children who come to school hungry, Obama said, "In our country, you know, we've got poor kids and we've -- some kids who have deep troubles at home.
"But there's no doubt that we can step up our game. And this is a big argument and a big difference that I've got with Governor Romney in this election, because they talk a good game about reform, but when you actually look at their budgets, they're talking about slashing our investment in education by 20, 25 percent. We've already seen 300,000 teachers that have been fired across the country. And as a consequence, class sizes have gone up by 5 percent."
UPDATE React from Romney campaign spokesman Amanda Henneberg:
"Instead of reforming education and putting achievement in the classroom first, President Obama has put politics and his allegiance to the teachers' unions ahead of students. When Mitt Romney was governor, Massachusetts' schools had the best test scores in the entire country and his leadership expanded opportunities for high-achieving students. As President, he will stand up for students, not special interests, and work to ensure that every child has access to a great school, great teacher, and a quality education."