Yesterday, White House sources confirmed that President Obama will deliver another back-to-school address aimed at all of the nation's children. That's right, the president will make September 14 the second-annual Obama Day at your local school!
You might recall last year's Obama Day, for which the U.S. Department of Education put out teaching guides that gave parents across the country reasonable cause to fear a day of liberal politics and celebrating President Obama. You might also remember the divisive national uproar that precipitated, which ultimately culminated in a relatively staid --- but nonetheless campaign-esque --- speech, not to mention a fair amount of after-the-fact sneering at people who either didn't want public-school kids exposed to left-wing politicking or just wanted their kids, you know, left alone by the president. Finally, you might recall the May Parade magazine graduation "address" the president wrote that offered just the kind of profit-denigrating, "service" extolling rhetoric that people feared eight months earlier:
Of course, each of you has the right to take your diploma and seek the quickest path to the biggest paycheck or the highest title possible. But remember: You can choose to broaden your concerns to include your fellow citizens and country instead. By tying your ambitions to America’s, you’ll hitch your wagon to a cause larger than yourself. You can choose a career in public service or the nonprofit sector, or teach in an underserved school. If you have medical training, you can work in an understaffed clinic. Love science? You can discover new sources of clean energy or launch a business that makes the most efficient and affordable solar panels or wind turbines.
So will this year's Obama Day be as controversial as the last installment? Probably not.
For one thing, unless the White House is not just wearing blinders, but living in a full-on isolation tank, it won't authorize the release of any lesson plans to go with the talk. And if it does, it will scrutinize them, put them before focus groups, and torture them until they give up any and all material that could be even minutely controversial.
Second, while there is plenty of anger to go around right now, there's been no burning summer of discontent like last year's spree of town-hall conflagrations. It seems the growing ranks of fuming Americans are now more focused on ballot boxes than soap boxes.
Finally, last year there was a sense that President Obama --- who'd led the "stimulus" charge, driven the takeover of GM and Chrysler, was championing huge and incomprehensible health-care legislation, and had repeatedly been in Americans' faces --- was simply too much in our lives. Directing his near-ubiquity toward peoples' kids only made matters worse. Oh, and some of the rather off-putting stuff from the "Cult of Obama," as Gene Healy dubbed it, probably didn't help.
This year, while certainly still a presence, it seems the president has made himself more scarce.
So the coming address is not likely to launch nearly the same seismic outrage as last year's. But there's still good reason to object to it.
No doubt the speech will feature prominent backdrop propaganda, sweeping views of packed-in, star-struck students, and camera angles designed to make the president appear just a bit larger than life. You know --- standard campaign stuff many people don't want in their schools. The speech will also almost certainly tout "major achievements" in education by the administration, especially the mega-overrated Race to the Top. So it will be politically self-serving --- though masked by the plausible explanation that it's just about "the children" --- and yet another reminder why the Constitution gives the federal government no authority to interfere in education.
But there is one other, more mundane argument against this speech, and it is being made --- as it was in 2009 --- by the Washington Post's Jay Matthews: the president will once again be eating up student learning time. As U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has often opined, American students probably need to spend significantly more time learning, not less. Yet his boss has apparently decided that every year he is going to take a little of that precious time and say "this is mine --- look at me!"
And so we have to ask ourselves: Are the benefits of students being told to work hard and stay in school really worth the myriad problems that go with a controversial, inevitably politicized, time-grabbing, national presidential address? The answer can only be a resounding "no."