Real Patriotism in Obama’s Address to Students

The far-right tends to be scared of just about anything these days — free health care and the first lady’s staff among them — but for nonsensical bogeymen, you just can’t beat a presidential address to schoolchildren. As a reminder, the right was convinced that Obama’s address would push a “socialist agenda,” with “socialism” defined as anything from “Hey, there’s a black man on TV!,” to “I disagree with the general sentiment of this presidency!,” to too-little-too-late complaints about the federal deficit.

Yesterday, the White House published the proposed text of the speech. To the surprise of none, the address is beyond innocuous — it’s affirmatively patriotic, and inspiring. Striving to maintain a connection with students throughout, Obama reminds students that effort is essential to the process:

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. [. . .]
More importantly, Obama uses his status as a true American success story to inspire: you don’t have to come from money or status to be a success. American Presidents have proved it before, and more than most in the modern era, Obama has proved it again:
But at the end of the day, the circumstances of your life – what you look like, where you come from, how much money you have, what you’ve got going on at home – that’s no excuse for neglecting your homework or having a bad attitude. That’s no excuse for talking back to your teacher, or cutting class, or dropping out of school. That’s no excuse for not trying.
Where you are right now doesn’t have to determine where you’ll end up. No one’s written your destiny for you. Here in America, you write your own destiny. You make your own future.
Towards the close, the speech takes a profound turn for the patriotic, encouraging questioning and good citizenship, while reminding students that education is about changing their country, and the world, for the better:
And even when you’re struggling, even when you’re discouraged, and you feel like other people have given up on you – don’t ever give up on yourself. Because when you give up on yourself, you give up on your country.
The story of America isn’t about people who quit when things got tough. It’s about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best. [. . .]
So today, I want to ask you, what’s your contribution going to be? What problems are you going to solve? What discoveries will you make? What will a president who comes here in twenty or fifty or one hundred years say about what all of you did for this country?
Your families, your teachers, and I are doing everything we can to make sure you have the education you need to answer these questions. I’m working hard to fix up your classrooms and get you the books, equipment and computers you need to learn. But you’ve got to do your part too. So I expect you to get serious this year. I expect you to put your best effort into everything you do. I expect great things from each of you. So don’t let us down – don’t let your family or your country or yourself down. Make us all proud. I know you can do it.
It’s a good speech, even a great speech, that uses the issue of education to conjure the American past, and inspire students towards the future. Because the right considers itself to have a monopoly on patriotism, the distinctly inspirational and patriotic overtones of the speech will either be ignored or transformed into a tyrant’s demagoguery. More likely, now that the speech is public, the issue will die: the right chose to tap into paranoia and hatred, to make a stand against the President in still another attempt to divide the country, but now that their fear is revealed as so much baseless puffery, they’ll want the issue to go away.
We shouldn’t let it. For over a year now, conservative circles have sought to build Obama into a divisive tyrant, to the point that he can’t even speak to public schoolchildren without raising eyebrows. Enough. Apart from being elected, Obama has done nothing to deserve this suspicion and anger. This “skool aid” scare ought to be the Terri Schiavo incident of 2009, the great conservative overreach that finally shatters any claim to integrity the fringe still has. How many times do these people have to be wrong, before we stop listening to them, and start laughing?


  1. The firestorm over Obama’s speech was incited by the ‘lesson plans’ delivered to schools prior to his intended speech, which was to inspire children to answer the question ‘What can you do for ME?’, followed by books introduced into the curriculum about, and by, Obama. The White House transitioned the speech from Obama’s self-promotion to a speech regarding the importance of education, as it should be.

  2. Of course, the books were never part of the DoE recommended curriculum. I checked thesay that rumor came out and it was false. As for the “how can you help the president” line, it’s unfortunate draftig but, in the original document, the meaning was clear. Context indicated the question was there to suggest what the new question makes explicit: you can help the president by helping the country, by educating yourself. Stop jumping at shadows.

  3. I have nothing to add that Amanda Marcotte hasn’t said, and I think she really nailed both why wingnuts are/were so terrified of this speech, and why their fears probably aren’t off base, on a deep level.

    1. Wow, thanks for that link, Evan. That’s a great article. This excerpt pretty much sums it all up:

      Obviously, the real fear here is that schools are going to interfere with wingnut indoctrination of their own children, that this speech could interrupt a steady stream of at-home education in being racist, being afraid of liberals, and general intolerance.

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