"Mr. President, stay away from our kids"

Obama gives his speech to the nation's public schoolers, and controversy over the address continues

Published September 8, 2009 6:01PM (EDT)

So President Obama spoke to many of the nation's public school students Tuesday afternoon, and yet, for some reason, the Glorious People's Children's Socialist Crusade hasn't begun.

Don't worry -- Obama hasn't suddenly lost his much-vaunted talent for public speaking as his big address to Congress on healthcare approaches. The lack of a giant children's communist uprising probably has much more to do with the fact that the president's speech to public schoolers was not the font of socialist indoctrination the right imagined it would be. Instead, it was -- as long promised -- a pretty straightforward, non-political speech about the value of education.

From the prepared text of the president's remarks, released in advance on Monday in an attempt to calm parents' fears about what Obama would be telling their kids:

Now I’ve given a lot of speeches about education. And I’ve talked a lot about responsibility.

I’ve talked about your teachers’ responsibility for inspiring you, and pushing you to learn.

I’ve talked about your parents’ responsibility ... I’ve talked a lot about your government’s responsibility for setting high standards, supporting teachers and principals, and turning around schools that aren’t working ...

But at the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world – and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities. Unless you show up to those schools; pay attention to those teachers; listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults; and put in the hard work it takes to succeed.

And that’s what I want to focus on today: the responsibility each of you has for your education. I want to start with the responsibility you have to yourself.

Every single one of you has something 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.

Maybe you could be a good writer – maybe even good enough to write a book or articles in a newspaper – but you might not know it until you write a paper for your English class. Maybe you could be an innovator or an inventor – maybe even good enough to come up with the next iPhone or a new medicine or vaccine – but you might not know it until you do a project for your science class. Maybe you could be a mayor or a Senator or a Supreme Court Justice, but you might not know that until you join student government or the debate team.

And no matter what you want to do with your life – I guarantee that you’ll need an education to do it. You want to be a doctor, or a teacher, or a police officer? You want to be a nurse or an architect, a lawyer or a member of our military? You’re going to need a good education for every single one of those careers. You can’t drop out of school and just drop into a good job. You’ve got to work for it and train for it and learn for it.

Of course, even a speech like that couldn't end the controversy completely. Florida Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer, who'd been one of the most high-profile critics of the address, terming it "indoctrination," conceded that it was a good speech -- even one he'd want his kids to hear. But he wasn't willing to drop his allegations completely.

"Now that the White House got their hand in the cookie jar caught, they changed everything, they redid the lesson plans, they released the text, and tomorrow he's gonna give a speech that every president should have an opportunity to give," Greer said Monday. "I would anticipate, based on this President being so vocal and so aggressive about his vision of America, where government is in every aspect of our lives, I believe that the speech that he was gonna give, based on the lesson plans, is different."

Other conservatives found reason to criticize the speech, though. Hot Air's Ed Morrisey, for instance, counted up certain words in the text and wrote, "Obama referenced himself more than school, education, responsibility, country/nation, parents, and teachers combined. And to think that people accused Obama of self-promotion!" Some, using a particularly novel reading of the law, said that the speech could be illegal. And, CBS News' Mark Knoller reported on Twitter, some protesters showed up outside the high school where Obama was speaking. One carried a sign reading, "Mr. President stay away from our kids."

Unfortunately, it seems that ludicrous reactions to these kinds of speeches by presidents aren't limited to the right. The Washington Examiner's Byron York went back to a similar address that then-President George H.W. Bush gave and found that Democrats forced an investigation into the use of federal money for it. That's a different sort of absurdity, to be sure, but it's most definitely absurdity.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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