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Proper focus

allaboutme(This post originally appeared on Politico‘s The Arena)

The noise about President Obama’s impending speech to schoolchildren Tuesday is muffling the real issues.  While the President has every right to address any segment of the nation on any subject – and we all have the right to voluntarily listen or not – it’s both the way this thing was rolled out and the predicted content that should be most alarming to people – Republican or Democrat.

First, let’s talk about process, i.e. the rollout.  Rather than simply announce that the president was making a back-to-school speech, the policy/PR/other sundry staffers attached to this wrote and distributed superficial lesson plans as if they knew anything about education to begin with and as if this speech was indeed about the president, not the nation’s education crisis.  Telling teachers they should consider engaging students in a dialogue about how President Obama inspires them is ludicrous, not because some may not agree with him, but because it suggests this speech is after all about HIM.  To then go ahead and attack people for attacking the speech is like smoking and then getting outraged when someone says they smell smoke on you.

The speech massagers were clearly set about getting the president press. While I don’t doubt the president wants to give a great, meaningful speech to kids, his handlers messed up and have thwarted that potential now, not Bill O’Reilly or dozens of other known detractors.  The president’s “men” fell on their swords on this one, and President Obama should take full responsibility for that.

Second, the president’s predicted content which we’ll all now see prior thanks to the defensive posture the White House has had to take on this, should not just be about working hard (that’s what parents, teachers, school people and community leaders all over the country are saying to our kids hourly every day in their journey so far this year). It should be about what he – the president – and policymakers around the country can and should do to make schools work better for all children. He should tell them that while all schools try hard, some schools are just bad and we’re all working to change that. Obama should tell these kids that their academic achievement still ranks below most other industrialized countries, that they should have opportunities to make good choices; that they should urge their parents to get active in changing the way schools do business.

He should give a speech like he gave to the NAACP earlier this year, in which he said that there should be no excuses for failure, that some adults who aren’t doing well should be removed, and that we need to be willing to get rid of what doesn’t work and grow what does.

The president could also use this opportunity to applaud successful reform initiatives, be they public, private or charter-based, and put this notion of perestroika with the teachers unions to rest once and for all.

That would be a meaningful speech, and one only he could get away with at this point in our political history.  So please, to my friends in the media, to the President’s staunchest supporters and to the pundits – let’s not lose sight of just how important a speech like this can be, but keep your eye on the real issues, and whether and how he talks about them. Then cheer him or take him on all you want.