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Obama's Supposedly Controversial School Speech Urges Students to Study Hard

5 years ago
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In a 2,389-word speech to students to mark the opening of the new schoolyear, released Monday to quell a controversy, President Obama does not say one controversial thing.

There is, said Obama in the prepared text, "no excuse for talking back to your teacher, or cutting class, or dropping out of school. That's no excuse for not trying. Where you are right now doesn't have to determine where you'll end up. No one's written your destiny for you. Here in America, you write your own destiny. You make your own future."

Obama also goes on to urge students -- hold on to your seats here -- to do their homework, set goals, work hard, persevere and stand up for kids who are bullied. For good measure, he reminds students to wash their hands to avoid getting the flu.

Worthy sentiments, to be sure, but who hasn't heard that advice countless times? The critics are going to have to scrub this speech pretty hard to come up with some foam. It's just not there.

The lecture that the president is scheduled to give at Wakefield High School in Northern Virginia at noon Tuesday eastern time is stuffed with common sense -- bromides, really -- and is full of the very messages teachers are forever trying to impart to kids. Having it come from the president, in the context of a new schoolyear, how can this be a minus?

Now, I'm not sure it will make that big a difference, but as Obama said himself, that's no excuse for not trying.

The speech took on a life of its own when conservative critics accused Obama of trying to spread propaganda and even "socialist" policies. In an attempt to quell the hysteria, the president and his advisers decided to post the speech on the White House Web site on Labor Day so parents could decide if they wanted to have their kids opt out.

The Obama team has been in the White House long enough -- almost eight months -- not to be shocked when conservative talk hosts, a few Republican Party officials, and certain corners of the blogosphere overreact to something the president says or does. Still, the response to the Obama back-to-school package -- a speech and related classroom activities -- seems to have taken the Obama administration by surprise.

To those more sympathetic to the president -- and Arlington is a city that voted for him overwhelmingly -- Tuesday's talk is likely to seem familiar, and perhaps inspiring. In the speech, Obama draws on his own life story, as he has done countless times, to tell students how his mother got him up at 4:30 a.m. to study.

The theme of personal responsibility is an Obama standard, used often on the presidential campaign, and in the Oval Office. This address is slightly different in that it is aimed at what students have to do. In previous speeches, Obama has underscored what parents, teachers and government owes to the nation's youth.

"Today, I'm calling on each of you to set your own goals for your education -- and to do everything you can to meet them," he says. "Your goal can be something as simple as doing all your homework, paying attention in class, or spending time each day reading a book."

"Maybe you'll decide to get involved in an extracurricular activity, or volunteer in your community," the text reads. "Maybe you'll decide to stand up for kids who are being teased or bullied because of who they are or how they look, because you believe, like I do, that all kids deserve a safe environment to study and learn. Maybe you'll decide to take better care of yourself so you can be more ready to learn."

"Whatever you resolve to do," he adds, "I want you to commit to it. I want you to really work at it," Obama said.

I was with a bunch of my Von Steuben High School buddies at a picnic in Chicago and told them that Obama's upcoming speech had nothing in it they haven't told their kids. One skeptical pal asked me if it was possible the speech was revised once the uproar started to delete controversial material.

I put the question --d id anything change in the speech because of the flap -- to Peter Cunningham, the Assistant Secretary for Communications and Outreach at the Education Department.

"There were some last-minute touch-ups right before noon, but the overall substance has not changed since the first draft I saw about 10 days ago," Cunningham told me.

"I would simply say that concept of the speech has not changed in six weeks. It was always directed at students – challenging them to take personal responsibility for their education. It never was a policy speech and it still isn't."

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on Monday called the contretemps over the speech a "food fight," citing a famous John Belushi movie as a reference point.

"It's a sad state of affairs that many in this country politically would rather start an Animal House food fight rather than inspire kids to stay in school, to work hard, to engage parents to stay involved, and to ensure that the millions of teachers that are making great sacrifices continue to be the best in the world," Gibbs said.

Gibbs said the speech text was released a day early so "anybody that had questions about what the President was going to say or what message he had for teachers, for parents, and for students would be pretty clear for all of those to see."

Before the speech, Obama and Education Secretary Duncan will host a group discussion with students at Wakefield. The Obama White House asked cabinet members and top officials to fan throughout the country Tuesday for back-to-school events pegged to the speech.

Examples:

*Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will pitch education at the Manhattan Charter School in New York.

*Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will be at the Amqui Elementary School in Madison, Tenn.

*Commerce Secretary Gary Locke hits Holton Elementary in Richmond, Va.

*Defense Secretary Gates appears at the George Washington Village Community Center at Fort Belvoir, Va.

*Office of Management and Budget Director Peter R. Orszag will visit with students and teachers Tuesday morning at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in Washington.

*Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius hits Philadelphia as part of Obama's "We Are What We Learn" initiative. She meets with seventh grade students and parents from the Thurgood Marshall Elementary School.


Duncan tried to re-frame the controversy on Sunday, suggesting that giving such a pep talk was the minimum a president ought to do. "The last time a president spoke to the nation's children was in 1991," he said during an interview with Bob Schieffer on CBS's "Face the Nation." "The real question I have is why has it been 18 years since a president has addressed our nation's youth?"

Although Duncan stressed that watching the speech, which is to be aired by C-SPAN and available on the Internet, is voluntary, he indicated he didn't think too highly of the maneuverings in some school districts to opt out of watching the speech.

"Again, that's just silly," the education secretary said. "They can go to school; they can not watch. It's just, you know, going to be, you know, an 18-minute speech. And so that just doesn't make any sense at all."

Duncan told Schieffer he did not "pay any attention" to the frenzy over the speech. "I don't spend any time on the silly stuff. I try and stay laser-like focused on really dramatically improving what's going on for our nation's children."

But the actions of the White House showed they were indeed paying attention to a controversy that threatened to be a distraction in a week the Obama team wants the focus on the president's Wednesday address to a joint session of Congress on health care.
Filed Under: Barack Obama, Education

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