08 September 2009

“Set Your Own Goals for Your Education”

Today President Barack Obama delivered an address to schoolchildren, available for national viewing by television. Many other Presidents have made similar speeches or appearances, including George W. Bush’s leisurely visit to a Florida schoolroom on 11 Sept 2001.

But word of Obama’s speech aroused right-wingers to a fury. The chairman of the Florida Republican Party, Jim Greer, called it an attempt to “indoctrinate America’s children to his socialist agenda.” The Republican lieutenant governor of Missouri, Peter Kinder, said, “The distribution of teaching curricula from the White House to the classroom clearly usurps the authority of our local school boards and school administrators”—ignoring how previous administrations and his own state government offer teaching materials. Some Republican parents promised to keep their children home.

Which cements the irony that President Obama’s speech was a non-political exhortation to work hard and stay in school. As garymmorris joked on Twitter, “That back-to-school speech was seditious when Andy delivered it to Opie in 1963 and it’s just as seditious today.”

Some Republicans claimed that the speech would be political. There would be a precedent for that in Ronald Reagan’s televised chat with students in November 1988, when he took the occasion to promote tax cuts. But Obama’s critics offered no evidence whatsoever for their claims—which were, of course, political.

In October 1991 George H. W. Bush made a similar address, asking students “to write him a letter about ways students could help him achieve his goals, strikingly similar to Obama’s messages,” as Politico reported. At that time, Democratic leaders in Congress complained that Bush was using government funds for a political campaign. Of course, there’s an important difference. Bush was running for reelection. Obama, on the other hand, was elected President only a few months ago.

Not that his virulent opponents wish to acknowledge that status. The extreme, irrational response to this event from so many Republicans looks to me like an attempt to deny Obama’s legitimacy as President, at least to themselves. Republican members of Congress have also stated that he’s not constitutionally qualified to be President and that he’s a fascist.

Obama’s major policies have been center-left, not radical, and he’s tried to govern through bipartisan initiatives, only to have Republicans refuse nearly all cooperation. What do those right-wing politicians find so frightening? Well, it’s hard to imagine them treating a white President with so much suspicion and disrespect.

[ADDENDUM: As if to confirm that observation, the next day Rep. Joe Wilson (R-South Carolina) shouted out “You lie!” during President Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress.]

(Photograph by Doug Mills for the New York Times.)


Anonymous said...

The reaction from the kids I've talked to who heard the speech was "Ho-hum," if they even listened at all.

Which strikes me as par for the course. After all, Joey down the table blew a straw slip all the way across the table. . .

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, it seems clear that the only novelty of this speech is who was delivering it, and on what personal basis. “Work hard; stay in school” sounds different when it comes from someone whose father paid for his full tuition at Phillips Andover.

Then again, “who was delivering it” was the reason the right wing got all riled up.

J. L. Bell said...

According to the Times of London, “Since Mr Obama took office, the rate of threats against the president has increased 400 per cent” over the rate in the previous administration.