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The Obama Speech to Students: The Inside Story

5 years ago
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One day last July, several staffers from the White House and Department of Education -- folks in the public policy and communication shops-- were kicking around ideas for a back-to-school event for President Obama.

They talked about Obama giving a back-to-school speech from a Washington area public school right after Labor Day -- a talk to students on a theme he has addressed many times before: personal responsibility. The speech was never intended to be about public policy, but rather some standard stuff -- work hard, stay in school, you get the drift.

The team decided to take it to another level -- broadcast the speech live at www.whitehouse.gov and convince C-SPAN to carry it.

Educators across the country would be encouraged to watch the speech and have their students-of all ages-engage in a variety of related classroom activities, with the White House and Education Department providing ideas for those activities. The focus, which seemed non-controversial, would be to have kids talk about the importance of education.

There would be a new media angle-the Department of Education would sponsor a "I am what I learn" video contest, where students 13 and over would make videos and upload them on YouTube to compete for three $1,000 cash prizes.

With a plan in place, the decision was made about six weeks ago to book Education Secretary Arne Duncan on CBS' "Face the Nation" on the Sunday before Labor Day to underscore the stay in school, do homework, go to college message and related activities.

Now how this all could explode into a public controversy is a lesson in itself.

All e-mails announcing this education package went out on Aug. 25, to more than 14,000 school districts in the country and to thousands of other public and private schools. Shortly after Obama's speech to schoolchildren was announced earlier this week -- it will be noon eastern time Tuesday at the Wakefield High School in Arlington, Va., a Washington suburb -- cadres of conservatives soon started accusing the Obama White House of trying to brainwash their kids -- and worse yet, spread a "socialist agenda."

I think the launching point was one of the suggested class activities: After the Obama speech, students could be asked to "write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president. These would be collected and redistributed at an appropriate later date by the teacher to make students accountable to their goals."

That was enough to trigger a frenzy in some conservative pockets.

For example, the Republican Party of Florida issued a press release "condemning President Obama's use of taxpayer dollars to indoctrinate America's children to his socialist agenda."

"As the father of four children, I am absolutely appalled that taxpayer dollars are being used to spread President Obama's socialist ideology," Jim Greer, the party chairman, said in the release.

"The idea that schoolchildren across our nation will be forced to watch the president justify his plans for government-run health care, banks, and automobile companies, increasing taxes on those who create jobs, and racking up more debt than any other president, is not only infuriating, but goes against beliefs of the majority of Americans, while bypassing American parents through an invasive abuse of power," he said.

None of this is true, not even close. And if you don't want to believe me, check out the non-partisan Politifact.com. Still, the damage was done.

"The hysterics and over-reaction is not about the president's message of personal responsibility or the fact that he is doing it -- because other presidents have done this," Peter Cunningham, the Education Department Assistant Secretary for Communications and Outreach told me.

"It's really about politics and we believe that kids and politics don't mix. When people see the text of the speech they will understand that our only goal is to ask young people to take responsibility for their future. It's hard to see how anyone can argue with that," he said.

Nonetheless, the White House was on the defensive. In order to diffuse the situation, the White House will release the text of the speech Obama will deliver to the nation's school children on Monday -- a day early -- to mollify critics.

Parents and teachers now will have an opportunity to read the Obama speech for themselves to evaluate the contents, said Cunningham.

"We want parents and educators to have an opportunity to review it in advance and decide for themselves how to engage their students around the issue of personal responsibility," Cunningham said.

The offensive--to some-- writing suggestion was dropped by the Education Department on Thursday and replaced with new language: Now, students will write "letters to themselves about how they can achieve their short–term and long–term education goals. These would be collected and redistributed at an appropriate later date by the teacher to make students accountable to their goals."

I just don't see a plot here -- because there isn't one.

Obama relishes talking about personal responsibility and using his bully pulpit to beat up on parents and kids to shape up.

In February, 2008, in Beaumont, Texas, I remember how Obama worked himself up on this during a presidential campaign stop at a school.

"So turn off the TV set, put the video game away. Buy a little desk or put that child by the kitchen table. Watch them do their homework. If they don't know how to do it, call the teacher," Obama said, talking to parents.

I expect Obama's remarks next week will be aimed at students -- don't drop out, you won't get anywhere if you do.

That's hardly propaganda, or ground breaking social policy. That's just a dose of common sense, a lesson Obama wants to teach.

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