Advertise - Print Edition

Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Borde-nough: School children don’t need a lecture; politicians do

Published: September 11, 2009
Section: Opinions

A few weeks ago in Washington, D.C., President Barack Obama’s public relations staff sat in a circle at the White House, each of them silently conscious of the fact that this sit-down session was making their fancy suits unpresentably wrinkled. With their five dollar coffees at their sides, Lisa Loeb-style glasses perched on their noses, and smiles on their faces, they happily snapped their manicured fingers. One of them, the recipient of this applause, had just had a clever idea.

After months of partisan wrangling over adjustments to the health care system, ongoing American involvement in wars, the parlous state of our economy, the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, and other divisive issues, the President could score some easy publicity and good will with a fluff speech to children as they returned to school after Labor Day. His speech would associate the president’s seemingly laboratory-engineered image with something high-minded and idealistic. It was just the sort of association his handlers had succeeded at creating in the campaign that got Obama elected, back before the job of being President got in the way. The address would bear no relation to the controversies that had commanded the country’s attention, and that was its greatest strength. It would merely call on children to work hard in school. It couldn’t offend anybody.

It seems highly doubtful that Obama’s advisers could have anticipated the response of their Republican counterparts, who assembled in their recently relocated office in the inpatient psychiatric ward of the Bethesda Naval Hospital. One, wearing an American flag pin on what he assumed was the lapel of his straitjacket, expressed ongoing amazement that the Soviets had managed to get Obama, who was widely thought to have orchestrated the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, elected President just by having him shave his beard. His colleague, who had been using a foul bodily substance to write “Palin in 2012” all over the walls, concurred. This wall-smearer saw that her amazed friend was becoming agitated, and had heard him complain earlier about warts, a sprained ankle, and a persistent cough. She therefore suggested that his friend approach one of the attending nurses for a dose of Taxcutacyn, a widely prescribed but rarely effective antidepressant that this group of delusional patients believes is the cure for all ills.

Trying to decide how to respond to Obama’s speech, the Republicans were bitterly divided. They considered cutting their taxes or destroying another predominantly Muslim country. But then one of them brought up a better plan. “At the count of three,” he said, “everybody scream ‘Socialist!’” Of course, thought the others, how could they ever have forgotten their old standard? They cheered wildly in celebration, and then began to practice. The attending nurse wrote down what he heard in the patients’ charts, adding the observation that all of them were having one of their better days, and seemed to be “getting back to normal.”

This may not be a perfect recounting of the events leading to Obama’s Tuesday speech to students, or the Republicans’ response to it. But it seems to me to be close enough, and that’s too close for comfort. As to the president, I want him to concentrate on policy rather than self-presentation. His next campaign is still years in the future. There are plenty of self-help books and inspirational lecturers out there for the bulk of the population, and there are untold numbers of Mr. T and other, less silly people (not to mention educators and parents) who carry this message to school children. But there’s only one President. Rather than empty talk to boost people’s self-esteem, Obama needs to focus on the economy, on his health care plans, and on bringing our wars to an end.

Improving education is a priority, too, but the way for the President to go about this isn’t by telling children that he’s “working hard to fix up your classrooms and get you the books, equipment, and computers you need to learn.” Claiming credit is problematic if there’s nothing to claim credit for, and if the improvements he spoke of don’t materialize in the near future (as they are wont not to do), young people will lose both faith in the government and trust in their president. Money for school improvements originating at the federal level must be pumped with much effort from Congressional wells, and then sent downstream through state and local bureaucracies that can easily divert it from the parched environs that need it most. It would be better to get this current flowing properly before telling people that they can expect a drink.

Rather than hog all the air time talking about his hopes and giving rise to false expectations, Obama should begin handing the microphone more often to Democrats in Congress. This almost faceless and nameless group needs to come back from its seemingly permanent vacation and join the argument in favor of those of Obama’s plans that are worthy of support.

Democrats in Congress don’t seem to have grasped that they enjoy big majorities and can actually do something about many of the problems that have festered in America for a decade. Their voice, if they’d only use it, could well be decisive. I’d like to give them a talk like the one Obama gave to the school kids. Can we ensure that Americans have adequate health care? Yes, we can! Can we stop pouring huge sums into endless wars, opt for new defensive strategies that don’t require expensive occupations of foreign countries, and get down to the business of reconstructing our economy? Yes, with our big majorities, we can!

As for those Republicans who cried “socialist” when Obama made his speech earlier this week, they need to think a little harder before opening their mouths. They’ll continue to sound crazy unless and until they begin to behave constructively as an opposition party. When Republicans take pains to call a fluff speech like Obama’s “socialist,” it makes one wonder what they think that label means. There are good arguments against several of Obama’s best-known initiatives, but shouting “socialist” isn’t one of them.

If Republicans think they are ever going to return to power, they ought to send care packages to their current leadership in the Bethesda psych ward, andshould leave them there for an indefinite inpatient stay. The party’s current leaders are warmongers who did not adequately manage either the economy or the public fisc and who did not regulate in the public interest. They have almost no redeeming qualities that make it reasonable to think that they might make good leaders in the future. They had their chance and failed; now they’re a liability to the G.O.P.’s future electoral hopes.

Perhaps students heading back to school were strengthened in their resolve to learn by Obama’s insistence that they work hard this year. But it was America’s political leaders who needed the lecture.