Obama's school speech: Will overkill hurt GOP?

Even before Monday's speech, conservatives had started to dial back the rhetoric. White House has suggested Republicans overplayed their hand.

By , Staff writer

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    Education Secretary Arne Duncan looks on as President Barack Obama talks to students at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Va. on Tuesday.
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Did Republicans overplay their hand on President Obama’s education speech?

That’s the subtle message from White House aides, as the president moves beyond what could have been a routine back-to-school speech to students Tuesday.

Speaking to reporters on Air Force One on Monday, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs seemed prepped to comment on the kerfuffle over Mr. Obama’s education speech.

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“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,” Mr. Gibbs said.

Word of the speech had sparked a revolt from some high-profile conservatives, who objected to what they called an attempt by Obama turn schoolchildren into “foot soldiers” for his “socialist agenda.” Some school districts opted not to air the speech; in districts where the speech did air, some parents kept their children home from school.

What Gibbs does not point out is that it was the accompanying lesson plan that sparked the uproar, not the speech itself, whose exact content was not revealed until Monday. An initial draft of the lesson, written by the Department of Education, had included a suggestion that children write letters to themselves about “what they can do to help the president.” The plan was changed to suggest letters about how students “can achieve their short-term and long-term educational goals.”

But that aspect of the controversy got short shrift in media coverage, and so when the president delivered the speech, a typical reaction was: What was all the fuss about?

In his remarks, delivered at Wakefield High in suburban Arlington, Va., Obama called on the students to study hard, stay in school, and take responsibility. It came across as a pep talk, aimed at a diverse audience of students, many of whom receive free and reduced lunch.

“I want to start with the responsibility you have to yourself,” Obama said. “Every single one of you has something that you’re good at. Every single one of you has something to offer. And you have a responsibility to yourself to discover what that is. That’s the opportunity an education can provide.”

Obama also told the students they have a responsibility to the nation, and in talking about the ways education can help solve the country’s problems, he expanded the focus to a variety of policy issues.

“You’ll need the knowledge and problem-solving skills you learn in science and math to cure diseases like cancer and AIDS, and to develop new energy technologies and protect our environment,” Obama said. “You’ll need the insights and critical-thinking skills you gain in history and social studies to fight poverty and homelessness, crime and discrimination, and make our nation more fair and more free.”

After the speech, conservative reaction was subdued, even laudatory. Ex-Rep. Pat Toomey (R) of Pennsylvania, the former head of the conservative Club for Growth, who is running for Senate, called it “an inspiring and moving speech for students across America.”

Obama talked about his own childhood, which included the absence of his father and his mother’s and grandparents’ efforts to give him educational opportunities.

Even before the speech, conservatives had begun to dial back the rhetoric. Jim Greer, the GOP chair in Florida, who last week was “appalled” that taxpayer money was being used to spread Obama’s “socialist ideology,” decided that he would let his kids watch after all.

Former first lady Laura Bush weighed in for the first time on the eve of the speech with a defense of Obama. In an interview Monday on CNN, she criticized the harshly partisan atmosphere in Washington, and said, “I think there is a place for the president … to talk to schoolchildren and encourage” them.

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