Analysis: Why the fuss over Obama’s speech to students?

WASHINGTON – Barack Obama is hardly the first president to speak at a public school. He’s not even the first to plan a live telecast from a classroom.

President George H.W. Bush did that in 1991, and without stirring anything close to the ferocious backlash the Obama administration has faced in North Texas and elsewhere.

But almost two decades later, the country is far more polarized. The media culture moves at relative hyperspeed. Conservative critics are more ready to pounce on Obama, even when he’s urging students to stay in school and out of trouble – just as Bush did back then.

The uproar this week prompted hundreds of complaints to Dallas-area school officials, and calls for sickouts so students could avoid “left wing indoctrination” during Tuesday’s speech. And the White House has tried to adjust, pledging Thursday to release the text of Obama’s speech early so parents can review it and revising instructional materials offered to schools.

“What we’ve got right now on the right is, they didn’t get back into office and they’re into a take-no-prisoners strategy,” said Curtis Gans, director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University.

This wasn’t how it played in 1991 – a speech that the Obama team has pointed to repeatedly in the last two days as it sought to blunt the attacks.

Back then, CNN was still widely viewed as a neutral news purveyor, and it would be years before MSNBC and Fox emerged as soapboxes for the left and right respectively. Facebook and other social networking sites used this week to spread alarm about Obama’s speech weren’t even a Twitter in the eye of political activists.

And Bush didn’t stir the same visceral reaction from political foes as Obama, who was pilloried during the campaign and in recent months for peddling a vision of socialism. And for public discourse, the rules were kinder and gentler then.

“There was no virulent hatred of George H.W. Bush,” Gans said. “Sometime between Bork and impeachment … it became progressively less civil.”

Obama critics may have had their knives out anyway, but the administration blundered by overtly suggesting that speech-related materials be added to school curriculum, said Kevin Sullivan, White House communications director under President George W. Bush and, before that, a top aide to Bush’s education chief, Margaret Spellings of Texas.

“There’s nothing wrong with the president speaking with school kids. … The heat over this is all about the health care debate,” Sullivan said. He suggested that lesson plans and additions to school curriculum was a big mistake.

That term “is radioactive,” he said. “The Department of Education is prohibited from doing anything with curriculum.”

Dallas Republican Rep. Jeb Hensarling, a leading House conservative, said he expects the speech to amount to “your basic public service announcement,” which is what the White House also promises. And he would have no problem letting his second-grader see it.

Still, he said, the White House should have realized the public would be looking for “even a scintilla of a partisan message,” given the climate in Washington.

“I don’t believe he would abuse the privilege any more than I would when I’m invited to speak at an elementary school or high school,” Hensarling said. But “there could have been a little sensitivity in the midst of this heightened battle. … I understand the reaction, given the context.”

Administration aides say the speech focuses entirely on personal responsibility, education and encouraging kids to stay in school.

“Nothing political is discussed,” Education Department spokeswoman Sandra Abrevaya said.

Similar stages

In October 1991, the first President Bush staged a similar speech at Alice Deal Junior High, a high-achieving, racially diverse school in Washington, D.C.

Just as the Obama presidency is struggling now with its health care agenda, Bush was tangling with the Senate over the controversial Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas and with allegations that he was paying scant attention to domestic issues.

In his speech, Bush extolled the virtues of studying, avoiding drugs and staying out of trouble. “What’s so great about being stupid?” he said.

Records at his presidential library at Texas A&M show that the speech was broadcast live on CNN and public television, along with some radio networks.

Like the current education secretary, Arne Duncan, Bush’s education chief, Lamar Alexander – now a senator from Tennessee – had sent letters to every school in the country urging them to let students watch the president speak.

Democrats blasted Bush for spending nearly $28,000 from the Education Department budget to hire a TV crew – apparently to ensure a more polished production than the networks would have ponied up for.

Alexander was forced to defend the expenditure at a congressional hearing: “We don’t send messages by smoke signals anymore. … We do it by microphone and camera,” he said.

This was tame compared to the allegations zipping through the airwaves and blogs this week. Obama was compared, uncharitably, to Chairman Mao and to assorted fascists.

It’s a fierce derision that Obama seems to inspire in his most vocal critics, some of whom have indulged conspiracy theories about his birthplace and his agenda. Similarly, Bill Clinton and the younger Bush saw increasing political nastiness as the country’s partisan divisions cemented.

Cynthia Mostoller, whose eighth-grade history class hosted Bush for the 1991 speech, said a presidential visit was a thrill – even though Bush didn’t connect nearly as well with students.

“Obama speaks to a whole different audience. Our kids absolutely love him,” she said. “I’ve been quoting Obama ever since he told the boys to pull up their pants. I loved that.”

Mostoller, still teaching at Deal and chairing its humanities department, has been looking forward to Obama’s big speech to Congress on health care on Wednesday and didn’t even realize he also planned an address to students; not everyone is caught up in the melee.

But she called it a wonderful idea.

“Every president needs to talk to the kids and have a message and speak from the heart. … These are public schools. They’re funded with public monies. It is a public institution,” Mostoller said.

Presumably, she said, “he’s not advocating a position of ‘support me in Afghanistan.’ “