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Obama Stands Tall Vs. Weather Wimps

The guy could let the economy spin entirely out of control. He could lose a war or two. He could fail to deliver on every single campaign promise, and still, Barack Obama would go down in history as a hero to Washingtonians who have never comprehended the severe case of RSA (Regional Snow Allergy) that afflicts this area.

The president went out of his way today to offer his astonishment at the closing of Sidwell Friends School on this day of, um, light mist.

"Can I make a comment that is unrelated to the economy?" Obama said at a morning meeting. "And it has to do with Washington: My children's school was canceled today, because of what? Some ice?"

He was smiling, but he was miffed, appalled, flabbergasted.

"As my children pointed out, in Chicago, school is never canceled. In fact, my seven-year-old pointed out that you'd go outside for recess. You wouldn't even stay indoors."

Ok, so the new president in town expresses his incredulity over the fact that the entire metropolitan area shuts down over an extremely minor weather event. You'd think this would prompt some rethinking, a tiny bit of soul-searching, right?

Not a chance. Here's the unfathomably defensive associate head of the Obama kids' school, Ellis Turner, responding to the president:

"No question, the president is right. The next time it snows, we would like to invite him to help us make the decision. His involvement will make it much easier to explain to our students why they won't be able to spend the day sleeping and sledding. Or, I suppose Sidwell Friends could merge with Punahou, move our classrooms to Hawaii and never worry about the weather again."

(Punahou is the private school Obama attended in Hawaii.)

Now, ordinarily, anytime a principal takes on a cranky parent in that kind of direct fashion, I'd be leading the cheering section.

But in the case of the leader of the free world, especially when he makes a perfectly legitimate point, I'd hope that the school might revisit its thought process.

(Disclosure: My own kids' school also wussed out today, closing for no apparent reason.)

The D.C. public schools, you'll note, charged ahead with school today, albeit with a delayed opening to give the ice a chance to melt. Which, as every forecast had predicted, it did: When I got out on the streets this morning, well before those D.C. public school kids had to be on the road, there wasn't a bit of ice on any street surface.

So, what good will the president's comments do? Probably not much, except to warm the hearts of the many parents and other adults who resent the arrogance of school administrators who wreak havoc with families' schedules at the drop of a single flake or, as in today's case, a few hours of misty rainfall.

Obama may not be done with the issue. "We're going to have to apply some flinty Chicago toughness to this town," he said this morning.

I'm thinking weather czar. General Petraeus, perhaps?


By Marc Fisher |  January 28, 2009; 5:05 PM ET
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So Sidwell closed, not out of concern for the safety of the kids traveling to and from school, but because they were afraid that the kids would get riled up about not being able to spend the day sleeping and sledding?

I wonder if they fear assigning home-work on the same basis? "No, we can't do that; how will we explain to the students that they won't be able to spend the whole evening playing video games and watching TV?"

Posted by: burke2 | January 28, 2009 5:50 PM

Well, I don't know where you were in DC that the ice/snow melted by 10 but where I was in NW (near Carter-Barron) the ice was treacherous and only got more so in the period from 8 a.m. to about 2 p.m. Then it warmed up and rained.

Posted by: ingbermr | January 28, 2009 6:15 PM

How lucky you were to have no ice on your street or sidewalk--did you clear that yourself?

I despise the arrogant assumption that our area is wimpy about snow. More than half of us came here from somewhere more Southern. We don't know how to drive in it and we rarely get an opportunity to learn. A cautious approach is reasonable. There are plenty of days available to make up snow days. What the heck is the big deal? Does it make you ALL feel more manly, or something?

Posted by: dynagirl | January 28, 2009 6:21 PM

I'm glad your street was clear of ice early. I couldn't get down my driveway until this afternoon, after I spent more than an hour chipping the ice off. Don't even ask about my front (north-facing) walkway. Not all the kids at Sidwell are local, some come from Virginia and Maryland. The president owes Sidwell and DC residents an apology for his ridicule. How would he feel if someone had been injured on their way to school this morning? And by the way, HE doesn't have to shovel his driveway, or even worry about driving. Mr. President, stick to the economy.

Posted by: jbcjd | January 28, 2009 6:48 PM

I'm glad your streets were clear, but mine certainly weren't. In fact, a metro bus got stuck in my neighborhood this morning. And the sidewalks were sheets of ice. I doubt everyone would be so smug if students were to fall and injure themselves or school buses were to spin into trees. This is not Chicago. Let students enjoy a day off.

Posted by: lgp2 | January 28, 2009 6:59 PM

Obama's fantastic speech at the inauguration spoke of the hard work that came before us as a nation, and used that as inspiration for the hard work that lies ahead of us. An awful lot of blood, sweat, and tears went into creating this place. Fixing the problems we're facing is going to take some serious effort.

If you're on the side that can't go to work because of some rain and slush, please just hand in your resignation. If your kids are too feeble to brave the perils of the bus stop, we don't want them, either.

Man up, crybabies.

Posted by: bryc3 | January 28, 2009 7:08 PM

With respect to the usual hysterical DC reaction to a little bit of snow -- MUST BUY MILK! NO SCHOOL! -- you are absolutely right. But ice is another matter. An inch of ice is worse than 5 inches of snow.
No school district chief is going to take the responsibility for yellow buses sliding off the roads into ditches. And it truly was icy today. Perhaps the Secret Service would like to drive my kids to school too ....

Posted by: fmjk | January 28, 2009 7:09 PM

Every year snow and ice come to the DC region. This isn't the South. We should be prepared to deal with it. And if, for some reason, you can't - blame the city, blame the size of the counties, blame the fact that children seem incapable of walking to school even when the sidewalks are perfectly clear - then *you* take a snow day. Personally I also believe adults should be required to take advanced driving courses through the years - and learn how to drive in bad conditions - even heavy rain (we don't close schools for that yet, do we? pretty dangerous on the roads and sidewalks I'd say). Besides. It wasn't fun snow to play in anyway. My daughter went to work with her dad. (I've lived in Chicago, I've lived in LA, I've lived all over and I'm a native DC metro resident. I feel qualified to say - DC are the biggest bunch of weather babies... ever).

Posted by: lexes | January 28, 2009 7:10 PM

The question is not whether the president was right - he was. The question is for what duration does someone have to live in DC before they believe otherwise. Side note, the sidewalks on my street were clear but not because of mother nature but because everyone on our block does their part and shovels them. Although my 6-year old son would argue that the more enjoyable parts of the walk to school today were on the un-shoveled and very icy patches. We in DC do need to toughen up, don't try to convince me otherwise.

Posted by: HillResident116 | January 28, 2009 7:11 PM

I can tell you that out here in Columbia, there was a thick layer of ice on the street. Just as with the silly people who observe "it's nice where I am, right now, so global warming is all a crock", Fisher makes the mistake of judging those who have responsibility for large regions based on the teeny bit of it that happens to be in front of him.

I'll get behind razzing area school systems for wimpy closures, if you will get behind (with $$$) the city of DC acquiring the kind of resources that Chicago has for plowing, salting, and clearing streets. Somehow, I think there would be a big fuss if DC devoted that kind of resources to a problem that crops up just a few days out of the year.

Posted by: ScienceTim | January 28, 2009 7:46 PM

We all should just be happy the President is taking an interest in the District unlike his worthless predecessor.

Posted by: mjwies11 | January 28, 2009 7:47 PM

Hm. My street was an absolute ice rink until it was treated at around 11 am today. There was no way anyone could get out of here- you can drive on snow, but no one can drive on ice.

Posted by: floof | January 28, 2009 7:50 PM

Pretty amazing that the associate head of the school would make such a sarcastic, disrespectful remark to the POTUS in a public forum. Seems like the better approach would have been to take the issue seriously, but keep the discourse light.

Posted by: ndgirl | January 28, 2009 7:53 PM

Hi Marc! As a native to the area, I do understand how our experience with ice and snow differ a little from our northern neighbors. I did post a comment already on the article. I also understand President Obama's shock coming from the north.

The reality is that in some areas, the roads are not treated and therefore not safe. In addition, you have many drivers who are "inexperienced" in driving on icy roads.

I'd rather people be safe than sorry. Have you ever been on the beltway and had your windshield nicked by a huge sheet of ice flying off the car in front of you at 60 mph? Not fun. People here don't even think about scraping the ice off their car!

Teri Meyer

Posted by: suntlr | January 28, 2009 8:06 PM

Our neighborhood streets, inside the beltway, were coverd with ice until early afternoon. There are no sidewalks in this neighborhood, and walking in the street, especially in the early morning, was dangerous. Hills made driving daunting for cars, not to mention school busses, had they tried.

School grounds were slippery and dangerous in the morning, and elementary schools typically have a single worker scheduled for duty opening in the morning.

Finally, in Montgomrey County many school bus drivers live outside the county. Many live in West Virginia, as reported last year in the Gazette. They cannot or will not make the trip over icy roads at 4am. Tranportation for students in those conditions is nearly impossible.

Many teachers also live outside the county. They also cannot make it to work on time on such days.

Very few Maryland counties have the schedules or equipment to fight these kind of conditons that occur here only every few years. With our budgets already having to choose between funding healthcare workers, police officers, and teachers, what council member wants to support buying more snowplows for Montgomery County? What kind of blog chat would Marc open up if THAT happened?

Posted by: mocoparent | January 28, 2009 8:16 PM

Obama was a bit off on this one. He has to keep in mind that DC includes a sprawling region that intermingles with the Baltimore area too. Maybe places within DC were clear but Maryland was pretty nasty. The District isn't just concerned about the District in its decisions it also has to worry about MD and VA since so many of us work for and in the city.

I think the difference between this area and Chicago is where they might get snow we get ice and freezing rain and you can't just plow that out of the way. Not to mention the mid-Atlantic is a weird area where we're far enough north to get winter weather but far enough south not to get it predictably/normally so people never really adapt to it. I'd like to see Obama personally drive himself on 95 and the beltway through the stuff and see if his opinion doesn't change a bit. I saw accidents all over the place and my aunt got her car totalled by a slipping tractor trailer slamming into her.

Posted by: nitrojunkie_20723 | January 28, 2009 8:26 PM

It was an idiot comment from a man who clearly didn't head outside at 6:30 a.m. to see if he could crack his head on the sidewalk whilst attempting to get the newspaper.

I will say that some days they call school off and I wonder why, but today was not one of them.

Even with rising temperatures it was still slick this evening as I came home.

I'm sure that Michelle was happy to take the opportunity to home school the little baby-girls since they missed out on a day of learning.

Posted by: RedBird27 | January 28, 2009 8:41 PM


Posted by: arrabbiato | January 28, 2009 9:54 PM

This morning the sidewalks were full of ice there was no place to walk but in the streets. My neighbor broke her hip a few years ago walking in the snow. My 86 yrs old aunt broke her hip years ago walking in the snow. Maybe in Chicago the elderly stay put but in this area theye work. If we let the children go to school and something drastic happens, who will be sorry then?

Posted by: Trinineil | January 28, 2009 9:55 PM

This morning the sidewalks were full of ice there was no place to walk but in the streets. My neighbor broke her hip a few years ago walking in the snow. My 86 yrs old aunt broke her hip years ago walking in the snow. Maybe in Chicago the elderly stay put but in this area they work. If we let the children go to school and something drastic happens, who will be sorry then?

Posted by: Trinineil | January 28, 2009 9:58 PM

This morning the sidewalks were full of ice there was no place to walk but in the streets. My neighbor broke her hip a few years ago walking in the snow. My 86 yrs old aunt broke her hip years ago walking in the snow. Maybe in Chicago the elderly stay put but in this area they work. If we let the children go to school and something drastic happens, who will be sorry then?

Posted by: Trinineil | January 28, 2009 9:58 PM

My neck still hurts from pulling it when I landed flat on my back just a few feet away from my house on my way to work this morning. I was wearing superior snow boots and taking mincing steps, but the ice still beat all my skills. If I were older or less fit, I could have landed in the ER, raising everyone's insurance rates.

Posted by: comesthesun1 | January 28, 2009 10:11 PM

I completely agree with President Obama.

And by the way, I echo the comment of an earlier reader: whether one agrees with him or not, how refreshing to have a president who expressed some interest or concern in local matters.

I spend a lot of time in Vermont. There is a lot of snow there, too---and the whole state does not grind to a halt. It can't afford to: if life stopped for a few inches of snow--or ice-- the place would be paralyzed for half the year. The secret is simple: once the first flakes of snow or ice appear, the trucks are out, in force, relentlessly treating the roads, over and over. Result: even after a blizzard, the roads are passable. People also somehow have the wit to completely clean their windshields, hoods, trunks, and roof tops so as not to send giant chunks of snow and ice flying into other vehicles on the highways. Simple common sense prevails. It could apply here, too. Really.

Posted by: BRANTONPA | January 28, 2009 10:40 PM

I am a strong Obama supporter. Today, however, I saw a bit of the arrogance that some of the Republicans saw.

My dear President, please do not presume to talk down to me. You aren't from this area so you really don't know it well enough to be making these comments. You might use some of your listening skills and try to understand before passing judgment.

Posted by: seahawkdad | January 28, 2009 10:46 PM

It’s always easy to pick on the DC area’s response to snow and ice when it seems like all those tough cold-weather cities do such a better job of handling it. And actually, they do. By way of disclaimer, I grew up in the Chicago suburbs. My wife grew up in the Buffalo suburbs. Yes, we know snow. And we are sometimes amazed by how easily they close schools here. But let’s consider a few points:

* I have been to Buffalo in the winter. Sorry O, Buffalo has Chicago beat for snowfall amounts. Chicago gets those 2-4 inchers all winter long that stick around and pile up because the temperature never gets above freezing. (My wife agrees that Chicago’s cold weather is far worse than Buffalo’s.) Buffalo gets snow – great big dumps of snow – 6, 12, 18 inches overnight. But the roads get cleared. All night long you can hear the snowplows rumble by – and that’s just the side streets. Here? Who knows when a plow might show up. Perhaps if DC, Maryland and Virginia didn’t have to spend $75 million on the inauguration, they could spend more on snowplows and get the roads down to bare asphalt to keep the snowbirds happy.

* A quick look through Google for “Chicago ice storm” shows that Chi-town had a pretty good ice storm the day after Christmas. I see quotes like ‘"If we had the manpower, we'd close down every expressway in the area," a harried Illinois State Police dispatcher said.’ And, “Police in southwest suburban Lemont took the unusual step of closing the entire village to traffic for about two hours”. The culprit? “Freezing rain started moving into the area around 2:30 a.m. and quickly spread over the entire metropolitan region, coating all roads with a thin, treacherous layer of ice.” Dang. There’s that ice again. I’d rather drive in a foot of snow (and I have) than on a quarter inch of ice. One wonders what would have happened if this had been a school day in Chicago. Would they risk a school bus careening off of the Skyway just to show how tough they are? Oh, and one other little tidbit – Chicago is flat. Prairie flat. Oh sure, there are river valleys and glacial moraines. But for the most part, you drive in a straight line and don’t change elevation too much. Pretty easy in the snow. Now before all you westerners and New Englanders start to crow about your roads, consider 2 million cars packing down the snow on your roads. Did someone say “chains required beyond this point”?

Posted by: otrdtr | January 29, 2009 12:30 AM

Regardless of whether President Obama's statement was appropriate, Sidwell Friends should be ashamed of their response!

You do NOT close school so children can sleep and go sledding!! You close school because you feel it is a safety issue having children travel in such adverse conditions.

If I sent my child to Sidwill Friends, I would seriously doubt their commitment to education after reading that statement.

Posted by: AutumnBanter | January 29, 2009 4:58 AM

Lawyers are prez should just shut up. As should moronic columnist who dont have a clue.

Obama's commnets about snow and DC are a perfect illustration of why govenrment can not solve all our problems and a smaller govt is good thing.

And you cna bet that Obama was a real practicing shyster lawyer he would be suing local jurisdictions in the area when the opened during winter weather when they should have closed school.

Ther is hope for you Marc Comrade Obama and Spekaer Pelosi are doing their best to turn the United States of America into the Socialist States of America. By your guns now before Speaker Pelosi out laws them and farting livestock!

Posted by: sheepherder | January 29, 2009 7:20 AM

"More than half of us came here from somewhere more Southern."

Really? Where did you get that information from?

Posted by: ArlingtonVA3 | January 29, 2009 9:26 AM

I think Obama is a great guy, but he's off-base on this one. I've heard these kind of comments about D.C. before from other tough Midwesterners. I was one of them hailing from Ohio. However, my attitude changed after having lived in the D.C. area for 25 years. I can tell you that you do not want to get stuck on 395 during an ice or snow storm because you will be there for hours, let alone the fact that you are taking your life in your hands dodging drivers who don't have a clue how to drive in the snow. So the next time Obama has a doubt as to why the schools close because of snow or ice, I suggest he get in a car and spend sometime driving on 395 and the beltway (495) (tisk... tell him to use the men's room first, because he's going to be there for a long while).

Posted by: aajohns795 | January 29, 2009 2:01 PM

Obama's right to criticize the region's response, but he doesn't understand something that several commenters here point out: regional governments simply don't plow the streets like they do in points further north. It's ridiculous. Remember that blizzard in February 2002 when the Anne Arundel schools were closed for a week? I can see one day for two feet of snow, even two. But a week? You're not even trying then.

Honestly, the real culprit is this region's outliers like Montgomery County and their terrible car-centered zoning and urban design. No density means tons of roads, which means tons of whining suburbanites who don't want to pay for sensible plowing or otherwise deal with the consequences of their choices.

Posted by: tmp2234 | January 30, 2009 3:35 AM

Sidwell's a private school and reserves the right to close whenever they want to, as long as their total in-school hours meet any sort of requirement. Besides, most private schools set aside "snow days" that they use for bad weather, or (if the weather's fine) just for another reason. My high school principal used one when our basketball team won a championship. Not to mention that I wouldn't want to deal with the parents yelling about their kids falling on their butts while going to school (or a related lawsuit).

As for the snow, he's right that it wasn't a big deal. More would have been nice, since I love to walk in the snow. The ice is what sucked, and while I'll admit that the roads were perfectly fine in my part of the District, that doesn't do you much good if you don't drive to work. DC doesn't pre-treat anything, and often doesn't bother to put down salt until the storm's over and it's already a mess. After walking 1/2 a block, I completely gave up on the sidewalks for the much safer option of walking down the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue. While I got into work ok, the next time I think I'm just going to call in sick. I like my job, but not enough to become roadkill over.

If it's such a big problem to him, then just appropriate the funds to properly treat DC roads and sidewalks. Or volunteer some heated Suburbans/limos, I could deal with that.

Posted by: natalieanne1 | February 2, 2009 10:01 AM

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