How Obama's Speech to Kids Became Political Theater

In 1986 when the space shuttle Challenger launched, school teacher Christa McAuliffe was among the crew. Awed and inspired by McAuliffe, teachers and students across the country watched the launch live in their classrooms. Thousands of school children were glued to television screens when, horrifyingly, the shuttle broke apart 73 seconds after takeoff, killing everyone on board. At the time, Chester E. Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an educational think tank, worked for the Reagan administration in the Department of Education. When Reagan decided to address the nation about the Challenger disaster that evening, Finn recalls school children being encouraged to watch the president's speech to help them deal with the trauma. "That was one of his fine moments," Finn recalls of Reagan's speech. "Not one single solitary soul that I am aware of criticized him." But today, if the response to President Obama's address to school children is any indication, the incident would likely be cast as "Conservative President Seeks to Take Advantage of National Tragedy." How did America get to this point?

"I don't remember presidents speaking to educators and schoolkids producing this kind of dust up before," says Finn, a conservative who has worked in education policy for 40 years. The media should bear some of the blame. Obama's speech this afternoon was both inoffensive and appropriate. And yet, cable news channels, newspapers, and blogs (including this one) gave credence to the gripes of a few minor players in the Republican Party. Florida GOP chair Jim Greer was given a megaphone, though he's not been considered a national GOP leader before. Which highlights a second problem─the lack of a credible Republicans willing to buck the vocal fringes of their party. Finn found the entire fracas "absurd" on one level but sees it as part of a worrisome broader trend in his party. "I'm beginning to be a little─I guess I'll say─ashamed of a fair number of fellow Republicans who it seems to me are letting outrage and paranoia substitute for ideas and alternatives of their own," Finn said. He wonders where his party's real leaders are. 

The changing nature of school curriculum shares some responsibility. Education experts like Ed Hirsh have lamented the decline of civics education, an important tool in the construction of national character and identity. As demands for technical education like math, science, and computing flourish, civics education gets sidelined. Turning out competent citizens is a diminished focus for schools, as they race to produce book-smart kids who perform well on standardized tests. The idea of a classroom as a vessel for the common good gets lost, and along with it, notions of schools as touchstones of a common society in which we share a commitment to functional democracy. In world where schools have stopped being a bastion of civic education, it's harder to see the natural pedagogical fit with a presidential address. And so it becomes a political sideshow.

But perhaps the reaction to Obama's speech represents a trend that is more difficult to stanch: the politicization of the Office of the President. The "constant campaign" mentality of successive modern administrations (arguably since the Clinton administration) has helped promote a conflation of the president's role as leader of a nation and his role as leader of a political party. White House communications shops transfer campaign strategies to government, so it's increasingly difficult to tell policy from polemics. Now, when Obama tries to act in his capacity as leader of the nation, and perform a perfectly legitimate democratic action like communicating with the nation's schoolchildren, his intentions are construed as political. This blurring of roles might be useful in a campaign, but it's not helpful for governing, especially when the nation being led is so large and diverse.

On this morning, conservative commentator Tunku Varadarajan wrote: "Call me naive, but I believe that Americans ought to accord their president a formal, ex officio respect, irrespective of party affiliation. He is, after all, the president of all of us (whether we like him or not), and it is unseemly that we should withhold civility from him on grounds of political disagreement." He's right. Civility doesn't connote the absence of dissent. Nor does it imply the exploitation of the listener. Civility allows for productive and informed political discussions, and prevents quieter voices from being drowned out by shouters. It's also perhaps the most underrated quality in contemporary political discourse─and, right now, the most needed.