Washington Matters


Lessons From Obama School Speech Flap


There's a lot to be learned from the controversy over President Obama's plan to address school children next week, but it's not the lesson Obama hoped to convey.

Only in this super-polarized partisan atmosphere can a plan by the president to urge kids to stay in school and study hard turn into a major battle between the administration and its far-right critics. It may be tempting for the rest of us to shake our heads and move on, but there's actually a lot to be gained by examing the causes of this dispute.

The administration flubbed this one. Its plan was well intended -- an inspiring speech from an inspirational president about the importance of staying in school and getting an education, and how doing so can open doors and help a young person grow up to be almost anything he or she wants to be. But the accompanying lesson plans must have been put together by party hacks. They called on teachers to use "notable quotes" from Obama speeches on education and to have students write letters to themselves about "what they can do to help the president." That went way too far. The White House now acknowledges the error and has revised the lesson plans.

But conservatives aren't willing to give the administration the benefit of the doubt on its intentions. In the typical overreaction of right wing radio commentators, they're claiming a conspiracy to politicize the school systems and teach what they like to call Obama's un-American socialist agenda. They've forced many school districts to ignore the president's Sept. 8 speech, and in what has to be the irony of ironies, they are urging that Tuesday be a "skip day."

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So a day intended to teach kids the importance of staying in school turns into an organized day of playing hooky.

Let's be clear about a few things. Politics has no place in the classroom. But banning the president shows disrespect to the office as well as its current occupant. No one objected when George H.W. Bush addressed students in a nationally televised speech  in 1991. Ronald Reagan also gave spirited speeches to student groups. Nor was there an outcry from conservative activists about Sen. Ted Kennedy routinely reading and giving inspirational chats to young school kids in their classroom throughout his career.

Obama is an inspiration to many young people, especially African-Americans and Hispanics, who have the highest dropout rates. It makes perfect sense for him to be the spokesman for a "stay in school" drive. Ask any U.S. employer what his or her biggest problem is, and the answer is sure to be the woefully undereducated workforce. If we don't do something about that, our leadership in the world is in big jeopardy. If that's not a legitimate problem for the president to address, I don't know what is.

So what's the lesson in all this?  Obviously, the right doesn't trust Obama at all. Some will say there are good reasons for that, but others will argue that the far right wants him to fail and that their contempt is irrational and out of control. Economic fear and a growing sense that government is getting too big are clearly underlying factors, though both had their roots in the Bush administration. But something more is also at work. From the silly birther movement that questions Obama's citizenship to the conspiracy theorists who say he's out to destroy the culture of America, there's an underlying sense that some people believe Obama is not "one of us." Race has to be a part of that, even if not overt. 

Whatever the cause, there's something very wrong about all this -- and very dangerous. The media, much of which makes  money off of controversy and anger, is quick to pour oil on whatever flames already exist. So, too, are some Republicans. The chairman of the Florida Republican Party, Jim Greer, was irresponsible in claiming that "taxpayer dollars are being used to spread President Obama's socialist policy." Somehow we have to find a way to pull back from this and find a way to debate our differences without this name calling. That means responsible spokesmen from both sides -- and from the middle -- must emerge and take control. And time is already short. 

 



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