After a School Brawl, Obama Talks to Kids

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U.S. President Barack Obama walks toward Marine One for his departure from the White House on Sept. 2, 2009

The first day of school is stressful for everyone. Thanks to conservative outcry about socialism and "indoctrination," that includes President Barack Obama.

With the health-care debate essentially on hiatus during Congress' final week of recess, Obama's back-to-school speech to America's children, scheduled to air at noon E.T. Tuesday, on C-Span and, became a tempest in an empty news cycle — or at least the letter from the Department of Education announcing the speech did. The missive urged principals and teachers to have their students write letters to themselves about how they could assist the President, a request that some saw as an attempt to inject politics into the classroom. Jim Greer, Florida's GOP party chairman, kicked off the controversy a week ago when he condemned the President's "use of taxpayer dollars to indoctrinate America's children to his socialist agenda."

In short time, right-wing radio and television hosts and conservative bloggers piled on, with some calling on parents to keep their children home from class as a form of protest; school districts in Maine, Missouri, Minnesota, Texas and Virginia said that they would not be showing the speech to students.

There is precedent for political haymaking around something as innocuous as a presidential address to students. In 1991, Democrats attacked President George H.W. Bush for spending $26,750 on a private production company to produce his stay-in-school, say-no-to-drugs message, which was carried live on CNN and some PBS stations. "The Department of Education should not be producing paid political advertising for the President," House majority leader Dick Gephardt said at the time. The Bush White House's insistence that the speech was "not political" has been echoed in the current Education Department's defense that Obama's address is "not a policy speech."

The White House released the President's remarks Labor Day afternoon, and it's hard to imagine even the most dogged partisans finding much to object to in sentiments such as, "No matter what you want to do with your life – I guarantee that you'll need an education to do it." Much of the speech hews to Obama's campaign-trail exhortations to children to put down video games, turn off the television and pick up the schoolbooks. Obama will specifically ask kids to fulfill their responsibilities and give shout-outs to the founders of Facebook and Twitter as young people achieving great things.

Much of the brouhaha could have been avoided if 1) there were other news last week, and 2) Secretary of Education Arne Duncan had been a bit more artful in his presentation of the speech's mission. "My concern is the clumsy way in which the Department of Education marketed this and the clumsy and unimpressive instructional materials that they provided," says Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

Produced by the Education Department's teaching ambassador fellows, a group of "teachers and instructional specialists" who get involved in policy discussions and decisions during a year-long fellowship, the controversial back-to-school lesson plan originally asked students to, "write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the President." That language was changed on Sept. 2 to "write letters to themselves about how they can achieve their short-term and long-term goals." Over the weekend, Secretary Duncan called the controversy "silly" and press secretary Robert Gibbs said, "If staying in school is a political message, then somebody should tell the NBA." Even Newt Gingrich (who will be joining Duncan and the Rev. Al Sharpton on a multicity speaking tour this fall to call attention to the nation's achievement gap) came out in support of the address. And while many opponents were unmoved, the furor seems on the verge of dying down. Just in time for school to start.