Michelle Rhee
Michelle Rhee

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Remember when Mayor Adrian Fenty let slip that he’d asked the White House for a presidential endorsement he likely wasn’t going to get?

Well, the day after that news broke, Fenty, Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan met at School Without Walls to announce that the school was being nationally recognized.

LL showed up and asked Duncan about Fenty’s request and whether he was there to give any endorsement. Duncan wasn’t amused.

“I don’t do politics, I’m the secretary of education,” a stern-looking Duncan replied, while half of the 2011 class laughed at LL being shot down.

But now comes word that Duncan is, well, playing politics. Via a report from Newsweek’s Pat Wingert: Duncan told a group of reporters this morning that he’s actively trying to play both peacemaker and dealmaker between Almost Mayor Vincent Gray and Rhee—so that Rhee will stay at her job.

Duncan acknowledged that he has already spoken to Rhee once, and will talk to her again when she returns from her honeymoon with new husband Kevin Johnson, the mayor of Sacramento, Calif. He also said he has repeatedly tried to reach Gray by phone to discuss the matter with him. “We’ve been trading calls the last two days, but we will talk,” Duncan said.

Asked if he was considering adding Rhee to his team, Duncan said he was a “big fan” of the schools chancellor but said he thought her “leadership” was needed in her current job. “I’d like to give this thing a chance to improve over time,” he said.

Duncan added that the high rate of turnover among superintendents nationally is a prime reason that the pace of school reform is so slow. He said school superintendents currently average tenures of only 2.4 years before being replaced by school boards or mayors, and that many of the most improved districts have “been where good folks stay the course.”

Talk about pressure. It’s one thing when Councilmembers Tommy Wells and Mary Cheh float the idea of locking Rhee in for two more years, but heat from President Barack Obama‘s point man on education is a whole different ballgame. Gray hasn’t even started his job (or won the general election) and he’s already facing the prospect of saying no to an underling of the most powerful man in the world.

Of course, Duncan’s overtures may be too little too late. The whole world it seems, including LL, thinks Rhee’s departure is imminent. Rhee made it clear before the election she wouldn’t work for Gray, and then called the election results “devastating” for the city’s school children (though she later tried to walk back from that unfortunate remark).

And LL suspects Gray might be a little more receptive to the Obama administration if he’d actually gotten a congratulatory phone call from the big cheese himself. Tom Sherwood notes that as of Friday (three days after the primary), the president still hadn’t personally called Gray.

“I do want to hear from President Obama,” Gray said Friday on the Kojo Nnamdi Show.

Anyway, Duncan better try and connect with Gray before he meets with Rhee tomorrow at noon. Otherwise, it’ll probably be too late. (Speaking of which: LL  got a funny e-mail from a reader, wondering whether we’ll see white smoke above the Wilson Building tomorrow if Rhee decides to stay, a la papal selection.)

Photo by Darrow Montgomery