Obama’s School Speech

On Tuesday, September 8, 2009, President Obama gave his much anticipated – and dreaded by many American parents – speech to many of America’s school-aged children during what was for many of them the first day of their new school year.

Many Conservatives, fueled by the Obama campaign’s previous use of children (here and here), were terrified that President Obama would use his address to America’s children as a means of indoctrination and of furthering his Leftist agenda. It certainly didn’t help that the event included “lesson plans” for teachers to use in conjunction with contained exercises that instructed to the students to write “how they could help President Obama.”

President Obama’s actual speech though was utterly unalarming, surprising only in a Liberal’s repeated use of the word, “responsibility,” and focused tightly on admonishing students to stay in school and to study hard in order to succeed later in life.

President Obama’s Message for America’s Students

In fact President Obama’s speech was quite similar in content and tone to President George H. W. Bush’s 1991 televised speech to America’s students. It was actually less politically charged that President Ronald Reagan’s 1988 address to school children.

It should be noted, however, that President Reagan’s and President Bush, Sr.’s speeches drew complaints from Liberals and that Congressional Democrats, unsatisfied with merely complaining, launched a fruitless investigation into the address’ funding sources.

My Quick Synopsis of President Obama’s Speech

The government may fail you. Your schools and teachers may fail you. Your parents may fail you. None of that matters; you kids need to stay in school, study hard, and get an education. If you don’t, you’ll fail in life, you’ll fail the country, and you’ll fail yourselves.

When all is said and done, getting and using an education is each individual student’s responsibility and hardships, irrespective of their nature, source, or difficulty, are no excuse for failing to excel.

As far as can see, as long the content of the speeches is not indoctrination, such speeches are an acceptable outlet for President who wants to bolster his image or salve his ego. Who knows? They might even do a small bit of good and saving even one child from throwing away their education is worth at least the cost of such a broadcast.

The devil of course is in the details – the content of the speech’s message both spoken and implied.

The Subtext of President Obama’s Speech

You can, if the video above was insufficient, read a mostly complete – some extraneous verbiage was removed – transcript of President Obama’s speech at Whitehouse.gov.  It’s a mostly harmless speech, one that certainly wasn’t aimed at indoctrinating America’s children into a Socialism or the Cult of Obama. There are, however, some devilish details in the tone of the speech and it’s content.

A Certain Elitism

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.

This is, of course, completely elitist. President Obama completely ignores the possibility – or value – of these students going to become skilled craftsmen or tradesmen. Like many Ivy Leaguers, President Obama has repeated expressed a certain disdain for “blue collar” workers and that prejudice showed in his speech.

More Elitism, a Soft Liberal Agenda, and a Point of Wonder

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. 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. You’ll need the creativity and ingenuity you develop in all your classes to build new companies that will create new jobs and boost our economy.

This is the one bit of “indoctrination” in President Obama’s speech. It combines a reinforcement of the elitist’s prejudice in favor of “professional” jobs with a preconception that the proper use of such a career would be one that furthered the Green agenda and/or certain Social Justice causes.

However, President Obama’s inclusion and endorsement of entrepreneurial aspirations was nearly unprecedented, certainly all too rare, in any speech to young people, especially one by a politician, and it was very welcome. It is very rare for young people to be even tacitly encouraged to start businesses as opposed to getting jobs.

So Careful In His Diversity

Young people like Jazmin Perez, from Roma, Texas. Jazmin didn’t speak English when she first started school. Hardly anyone in her hometown went to college, and neither of her parents had gone either. But she worked hard, earned good grades, got a scholarship to Brown University, and is now in graduate school, studying public health, on her way to being Dr. Jazmin Perez.

I’m thinking about Andoni Schultz, from Los Altos, California, who’s fought brain cancer since he was three. He’s endured all sorts of treatments and surgeries, one of which affected his memory, so it took him much longer – hundreds of extra hours – to do his schoolwork. But he never fell behind, and he’s headed to college this fall.

And then there’s Shantell Steve, from my hometown of Chicago, Illinois. Even when bouncing from foster home to foster home in the toughest neighborhoods, she managed to get a job at a local health center; start a program to keep young people out of gangs; and she’s on track to graduate high school with honors and go on to college.

Jazmin, Andoni and Shantell aren’t any different from any of you. They faced challenges in their lives just like you do. But they refused to give up. They chose to take responsibility for their education and set goals for themselves. And I expect all of you to do the same.

Jazmin Perez, Andoni Schultz, and Shantell Steve – the immigrant Latina, the chronically and critically ill White guy, and the parentless Black girl from the ghetto – it’s a near perfect mix of gender, infirmity, and race for the President to use as his poster children for what can be achieved – a little too perfect and a little too carefully crafted. There’s a nuanced subtext to the choice of these specific young people.

Do NOT mistake my meaning; Ms. Perez, Mr. Schults, and Ms. Steve CERTAINLY deserve recognition and accolades for their efforts. There are countless others that do so as well though.

Exactly what comprises that subtext is dependent on President Obama’s or his staff’s – read as Mr. Axelrod’s – reasons for the choice of these particular students for special honors.

Was is simply politics? A Latina, a young man whose life has been dependent upon healthcare, and a young, impoverished Black woman certainly look good in front of President Obama’s supporters and constituency.

Was is simply pragmatism? If President Obama was attempting to maximize his speech’s resonance with the most “at risk” demographics in the educational system, then Ms. Perez and Ms. Steve selection would certainly make sense and Mr. Schultz’ condition makes him a safe addition to the list that won’t offend the sensibilities and/or prejudices of Latino or Black urban youth – or their parents.

Was it “soft” or “implied” racism? If so, it’s possible that Andoni Schultz had to have a longstanding and horrific medical condition to be chosen because either President Obama or his staff couldn’t conceive of a healthy, young White man as having to overcome incredible adversity to finish his education.

I do not know which, if any, of these rationales were behind the choice of these particular students. I do know that such choices, being subjective, were not random.

Some Hot Button Bingo

Maybe you’ll decide to get involved in an extracurricular activity, or volunteer in your community. Maybe you’ll decide to stand up for kids who are being teased or bullied because of who they are or how they look, because you believe, like I do, that all kids deserve a safe environment to study and learn. Maybe you’ll decide to take better care of yourself so you can be more ready to learn. And along those lines, I hope you’ll all wash your hands a lot, and stay home from school when you don’t feel well, so we can keep people from getting the flu this fall and winter.

There’s nothing quite like a quick round-up of some hot button political issues to round out the President’s speech. He rattled though community service, racism and other discrimination and bullying, school violence, overall healthcare and “healthy living choices” , and managed to smoothly get in a call-out to the much-hyped avian flu pandemic. I’m impressed. 😉


Overall I would say it was a good speech and not one that lived down to the fears of Conservative Americans, a fact that we can be thankful for. Yes; it contained a subtext that I’m concerned about, but that subtext was aimed at older students who are less impressionable and at the expected large number of adult viewers and readers. It was certainly less heavy-handed than one could normally expect from a Liberal politician.

In point of fact, it was an odd speech for a Liberal, especially a Black Liberal, to give to students. The strong theme of personal responsibility and other people’s or agencies’ failing not being an acceptable excuse for failure is not something that we’ve come to expect from any Liberal and even less so from a Black one.

I wonder if, like Bill Cosby, these sentiments will cost President Obama support from the “Black Community.” Of course his or his staff’s particular choice in students to be named as role models may have been designed to ameliorate that political risk.

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5 Responses to “Obama’s School Speech”

  1. zhann Says:

    I didn’t think the speech was that great, but it was encouraging which is probably what he was going for. Personally, I enjoyed the bickering before the speech much more than the speech itself. I love nothing more than to see the parties go at it with such fervor over something so trivial.

    As for elitism, I am not sure I fully agree, although I see where you are coming from. In all honesty, regardless of what he said or how he said it, those who wished to find fault in his speech would do so. There is no such animal as ‘the perfect speech’, especially one longer than 10 words.

  2. jonolan Says:

    I didn’t think his speech was objectively that great either, but it was technically very good, a hard task when speaking to that broad of an age and education range of target listeners.

    As for my analysis of the content of speech – you know I do that, zhann. I have a fairly long track record of deconstructing political speeches on this blog. 😉 Someone has to cut through the nuance and rhetoric…

  3. in2thefray Says:

    Yeah another nothing speech that really only showed the hysteria of way too many on the right. The dangers I thought possible were always rooted in some Obama drone union douche teacher using the talking points for a libbie love fest. I also had the thought that the other side could use it too. In a nation that pretty much graduates high school students with a tenth grade education at best I think in school political bickering would’ve been a bad place to go.
    My kids saw it and have already forgotten it and my kids are pretty smart.
    I will say this though. One of the official DoE talking points was a question along the lines of who should the president give a speech to. I say the unions. To his credit he’s tried it before and they spanked him for it. We’ll see.

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