Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Not For Teacher

How did we get to a place where the President can't talk to schoolchildren without provoking a national crisis? In the days leading up to his speech yesterday, I saw a well-dressed suburban mother weeping at the prospect for the TV cameras. Pundits accused him of distracting principals and district officials from their solemn duties on the first day of school. Talk show hosts mined the speech for ideological meta messages and counted the number of times he referred to himself.

It seems axiomatic that certain privileges come with being President. Riding on Air Force One. Throwing out the first pitch. Getting to say things like this to children:
[A]t the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, the best schools in the world -- and none of it will make a difference, none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities, unless you show up to those schools, unless you pay attention to those teachers, unless you listen to your parents and grandparents and other adults and put in the hard work it takes to succeed. That's what I want to focus on today: the responsibility each of you has for your education.
How secretly socialist of him. Yes, I know the initial study materials distributed by the White House asked kids to think about what they could do to "help the President" -- which actually doesn't bug me that much, either. I know Congress dogged George H. W. Bush about the cost of his own speech to kids -- which was nothing next to the right's latest Obamaspasm.

What was up? Everyone else has opinion, so here's mine. There were these factors at play:

1) Anxious people. A still-struggling economy, a depressed job market, and parents in an H1N1 A-1 back-to-school tizzy. Congratulations -- we are the richest and most obsessively worried country in human history.

2) Unfamiliar leader. To those who didn't ride the Obama wave, he still may seem aloof and a bit fey. Though I don't always agree with him, I like and admire Obama. But every once in a while, when I see his name or image, I have to pinch myself, only because I didn't know he existed five years ago, he doesn't seem especially familiar yet, but there he is, astride the globe. Over on the fringes with the racists and birthers (and no, I don't equate them), there's a sharp edge that totally creeps me out. Watch this revolting Alan Keyes video and see what I mean about the hard malice of Obama's sternest political foes. Maybe wack job leftists were as scary in the Nixon, Reagan, and Bush eras, but I didn't feel as accountable for them as I do some of those who, more often than not, may actually vote as I do.

3) Overreaching administration: Obama can't do much about 1) and 2). But it was his call to go for ontological change in health care. Perhaps he decided that he shouldn't have to trim his sails because of the errors of his predecessors. Perhaps he felt he had a massive mandate. I never did. Perhaps he felt he could sneak his bold reforms through in the generalized enthusiasm about his election and the seemingly undifferentiated consensus that a new approach to national government was needed. But once mass economic panic faded, and with trillions in new spending and future deficits already out the door, the health care effort was bound to get caught in legislative molasses as senators and representatives started hearing from home. We're still a centrist country, as Bill Clinton learned in the 1994 midterms.

If Obama hadn't done 3), would 1) and 2) still have generated the embarrassing spectacle of a popularly elected and well-meaning President having to defend his decision to tell his nation's children to do their homework? When I discussed this with colleagues over breakfast yesterday, a discerning Obama supporter said he suspected the answer was yes. I agree. Obama may end up wishing he hadn't spent so much capital on health care. But the rest of the American people are responsible for managing their corrosive and somewhat narcissistic anxiety. A little British stiff upper lip (if even they still do that) wouldn't be the end of the world. And conservatives? They had better get the lunatic fringe into line, or moderates may decide to go for a long walk.

Sept. 12 note: A reader points out that the creepy Keyes video -- in which the former Presidential candidate called Obama a radical communist and then looked at the camera and said he must be "stopped" -- has been de-YouTubed. Probably best.


MK said...

A very insightful posting! Many thanks for writing this account of some major elements of the current zeitgeist. Your essay showcases your understanding of politics, leadership, governance, and human beings, fascinating and complex as they can be! Obviously, as your analysis reveals, you know your stuff very well in all those areas.

Take care,


Fr. John said...

Thanks, MK. A blogger with one reader may consider himself blessed indeed if it is you!