Some parents and conservative commentators had feared that Mr. Obama would use the occasion to indoctrinate their children with his political ideology.
But only one paragraph hints at Obama's political agenda. In it, he exhorts students to “protect our environment” and to “fight poverty … and discrimination, and make our nation more fair and more free.”
In the history of presidential rhetoric, these could hardly be considered inflammatory or even unusual words. But the Obama administration is on the defensive, with polls showing the president’s support slipping, and critics are sensing an opportunity to parse his every statement.
At one point, Obama will say in Tuesday's speech: “You’ll need the knowledge and problem-solving skills you learn in science and math … to develop new energy technologies and protect our environment.”
This hits upon what he sees as the need to transform the US economy by developing environmentally friendly technologies – a stance that grows from his desire to strongly combat climate change, something conservatives are less eager to do.
Directly afterward, he adds: “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.”
Though typical Democratic fare, the comment could draw the ire of some who feel that Obama is encouraging young people to see America as an unfair and discriminatory society.
Otherwise, the speech is a pep talk to potential underachievers – a Cliff’s Notes of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers,” the best-selling book that posits that the success is predicated almost entirely upon hard work. It will be broadcast by television to classrooms nationwide – the first presidential address to students since 1991.
Obama asks students to stay in school and set achievable goals for themselves: “That’s why 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.”
“These people succeeded because they understand that you can’t let your failures define you – you have to let them teach you.… No one’s born being good at things, you become good at things through hard work,” the speech says.
Indeed, at its heart, the speech is about individual responsibility – a theme for which even the staunchest libertarian would have sympathy. “Your families, your teachers, and I are doing everything we can to make sure you have the education you need…. But you’ve got to do your part too.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who was familiar with the tone of the speech, came to Obama’s defense on Fox News Sunday: “It is good to have the president of the United States saying to young people across America stay in school and do your homework. It’s good for America.”
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