Obama Gets Personal About Education

By Dan Froomkin
1:30 PM ET, 03/10/2009

Obama spoke about education to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce this morning. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Education is one area where the bully pulpit may be the best thing the president has going for him.

The most important decisions about schools are largely made at the local and state level, which is where the majority of money comes from, as well. That's one reason among many that real reform is so difficult. Other reasons include: so much depends on the quality of the teachers; educational inequities are considerable and intractable; and attempts at reform often have unintended consequences.

President Obama gave a rousing speech this morning outlining a broad educational agenda that includes a potentially controversial call for merit pay for teachers, as well as increased federal funding and higher standards.

He also did a lot of exhorting: exhorting high-school students to stay in school, exhorting high-school graduates to pursue at least one year of college or career training, and exhorting parents to step up to their responsibilities.

And to that end, he shared a personal anecdote: "When I was a child my mother and I lived overseas, and she didn't have the money to send me to the fancy international school where all the American kids went to school," he said, in a story familiar to readers of his autobiography.

"So what she did was she supplemented my schooling with lessons from a correspondence course. And I can still picture her waking me up at 4:30 a.m., five days a week, to go over some lessons before I went to school. And whenever I'd complain and grumble and find some excuse and say, 'Awww, I'm sleepy,' she'd patiently repeat to me her most powerful defense. She'd say, 'This is no picnic for me either, buster.' (Laughter and applause.)

"And when you're a kid you don't think about the sacrifices they're making. She had to work; I just had to go to school. But she'd still wake up every day to make sure I was getting what I needed for my education. And it's because she did this day after day, week after week, because of all the other opportunities and breaks that I got along the way, all the sacrifices that my grandmother and my grandfather made along the way, that I can stand here today as President of the United States. It's because of the sacrifices -- (applause.) See, I want every child in this country to have the same chance that my mother gave me, that my teachers gave me, that my college professors gave me, that America gave me."

What will come of Obama's talk? We'll know more when we see where the federal money really goes, with what strings attached, and how the locals respond. And when we see next year's college enrollment numbers.

Obama started his speech with a response to the increasing chatter inside the Beltway that he is trying to do too much at once. "I know there’s some who believe we can only handle one challenge at a time." But, he said, "we don’t have the luxury of choosing between getting our economy moving now and rebuilding it over the long term.

"America will not remain true to its highest ideals -- and America’s place as a global economic leader will be put at risk -- unless we not only bring down the crushing cost of health care and transform the way we use energy, but also if we do -- if we don’t do a far better job than we’ve been doing of educating our sons and daughters; unless we give them the knowledge and skills they need in this new and changing world....

"The source of America’s prosperity has never been merely how ably we accumulate wealth," he said, "but how well we educate our people."

Obama's educational agenda, while certainly leaning in a liberal direction, also includes some elements that are likely to upset some of his traditional supporters, including the teachers' unions. But, sounding a familiar theme, Obama said that, "[f]or decades, Washington has been trapped in the same stale debates that have paralyzed progress and perpetuated our educational decline. Too many supporters of my party have resisted the idea of rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay, even though we know it can make a difference in the classroom. Too many in the Republican Party have opposed new investments in early education, despite compelling evidence of its importance....

"It’s time to expect more from our students. It’s time to start rewarding good teachers, stop making excuses for bad ones. It’s time to demand results from government at every level. It’s time to prepare every child, everywhere in America, to out-compete any worker, anywhere in the world. (Applause.) It’s time to give all Americans a complete and competitive education from the cradle up through a career. We’ve accepted failure for far too long. Enough is enough."

He endorsed merit pay: "Good teachers will be rewarded with more money for improved student achievement, and asked to accept more responsibilities for lifting up their schools. Teachers throughout a school will benefit from guidance and support to help them improve."

And he supported the abolition of teacher tenure: "Let me be clear: if a teacher is given a chance but still does not improve, there is no excuse for that person to continue teaching. I reject a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences. The stakes are too high."

Finally, in a slap at former president George W. Bush's signature education initiative, Obama called on state officials "to develop standards and assessments that don't simply measure whether students can fill in a bubble on a test, but whether they possess 21st century skills like problem-solving and critical thinking, entrepreneurship and creativity. That is what we will help them do later this year when we finally make No Child Left Behind live up to its name by ensuring not only that teachers and principals get the funding they need, but that the money is tied to results."

Scott Wilson writes for The Washington Post: "Although many of the ideas he outlined have been proposed before or are in the works, Obama used the speech to offer a sense of his priorities, linking many of them to the success of the U.S. economy."

Education writer Jay Matthews blogs for The Washington Post: "President Obama's education speech this morning was, in my memory, the largest assemblage of smart ideas about schools ever issued by one president at one time. Everyone will have a different favorite part -- performance pay models for teachers, better student data tracking systems, longer school days and years, eliminating weak state testing standards, more money for schools that improve, more grants for fresh ideas, better teacher training, more charter school growth, faster closing of bad charters and many more....

"The problem, which the president did not mention, is that he has limited power to make any of these things happen. His speech was full of encouraging words to state and school district officials, who will be the true deciders. True, he has some money to spread around for new ideas. But the vast bulk of the budget stimulus dough will go, as he said, to saving jobs in school systems."

And Alyson Klein blogs for Education Week: "President Barack Obama's first major address on education is drawing praise from everyone from Capitol Hill Republicans to public charter school advocates to the National Education Association."

But, she writes: "Not surprisingly, some of these groups came up with different interpretations of the remarks, particularly on alternative pay for teachers."

Watch Out for the Democrats

By Dan Froomkin
1:28 PM ET, 03/10/2009

It's not just Republicans who are deeply attached to the status quo. The entire Washington establishment is threatened by Obama's audacious and course-changing goals -- and that includes Democrats in Congress.

Shailagh Murray writes in The Washington Post about the growing Democratic pushback against the party's own agenda: "Obama's far-reaching plans for health-care, energy and education reform...continue to enjoy broad Democratic support. But as the ideas develop into detailed legislation, they will transform from abstract objectives into a tangle of difficult trade-offs. Crop subsidies, the student loan program and Medicare radiology rules are all currently niche concerns, but any one could become the next crisis for party leaders, with the potential to derail a major agenda item. One major proposal, to limit itemized deductions for wealthy taxpayers, has already raised doubts among prominent Democrats in both chambers."

Jackie Calmes and Carl Hulse write in the New York Times that "the Democratic barons of Congress" are weighing in on Obama's plans. "The apparent first casualty is a big one: a proposal to limit tax deductions for the wealthiest 1.2 percent of taxpayers. Mr. Obama says the plan would produce $318 billion over the next decade as a down payment for overhauling health care.

"But the chairmen of the House and Senate tax-writing committees, Senator Max Baucus of Montana and Representative Charles B. Rangel of New York, have objected to the proposal, citing a potential drop in tax-deductible gifts to charities.

"Billions in savings from cutting government subsidies to big farmers and agribusinesses? No dice, said Senator Kent Conrad of North Dakota, who heads the Senate Budget Committee....

"Mr. Obama is taking a gamble in outsourcing the drafting of his agenda's details to...five veteran lawmakers and others in Congress, each with his own political and parochial calculations."

Lynn Sweet blogs for the Chicago Sun Times that Obama has invited 68 members of the House New Democrat Coalition to meet with him this afternoon at the White House. "The NDC is a caucus of moderate Democrats, created in 1997. Obama earlier met with the Blue Dog Democrats--a slightly more conservative group of moderates-- when he was wooing their vote for his stimulus package."

Opinion Watch

By Dan Froomkin
1:23 PM ET, 03/10/2009

Richard Cohen, writing in his Washington Post opinion column, concludes that Obama's foreign policy "realism" means that "the American century" is over.

And, after misattributing them to a recent blurb for a book, he uses Obama's comments about theologian and philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr to New York Times columnist David Brooks two years ago to conclude that the "Obama Doctrine" is "to have none at all."

Here's what Obama told Brooks: "I take away the compelling idea that there's serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn't use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism."

Howard Fineman writes for Newsweek that "in ways both large and small, what's left of the American Establishment is taking his measure and, with surprising swiftness, they are finding him lacking."


Fineman says he traces the reasons "to a central trait of the president's character: he's not really an in-your-face guy. By recent standards -- and that includes Bill Clinton as well as George Bush -- Obama for the most part is seeking to govern from the left, looking to solidify and rely on his own party more than woo Republicans. And yet he is by temperament judicious, even judicial. He'd have made a fine judge. But we don't need a judge. We need a blunt-spoken coach."

Speaking of the Establishment, Bob Herbert writes in his New York Times opinion column that "too many of the public officials who should have been looking out for the middle class and the poor were part of the reckless and shockingly shortsighted alliance of conservatives and corporate leaders that rigged the economy in favor of the rich and ultimately brought it down completely...

"Working people were not just abandoned by big business and their ideological henchmen in government, they were exploited and humiliated. They were denied the productivity gains that should have rightfully accrued to them. They were treated ruthlessly whenever they tried to organize. They were never reasonably protected against the savage dislocations caused by revolutions in technology and global trade....

"Now, with the economy in free fall and likely to get worse, Americans -- despite their suffering -- have an opportunity to reshape the society, and then to move it in a fairer, smarter and ultimately more productive direction. That is the only way to revive the dream, but it will take a long time and require great courage and sacrifice."

Meanwhile, over in my White House Watchers group, I'm asking: Does Washington just not get Obama?

Chicago Tribune opinion columnist John McCarron writes an open letter to his fellow former Tribune reporter David Axelrod: "From now on, David, your job is all about anger management.

"There's a lot of anger out there. People are seeing their life savings cut in half, their job security stripped away, their children's prospects for college and careers drastically dimmed."

McCarron's advice to Axelrod is to "make sure you don't let your opponents turn this powerful force against your administration and its agenda for change. You know it's their plan.

"How to stop that from happening? First and foremost, by taking advantage of every opportunity to remind folks, in a pleasant but firm way, just how we got into this mess in the first place.

"People need to keep their history straight. For the next few years American politics is going to turn on remembrance of things just past, and whose version of what happened -- yours or theirs -- is the more credible."

That reminded me of something Robert Reich blogged last week: "Republicans have made no secret of their wish to blame Obama for the bad economy, and to stir up as much populist rage against his so-called 'socialist' tendencies as politically possible. History shows how effective demagogic ravings can be when a public is stressed economically. Make no mistake: Angry right-wing populism lurks just below the surface of the terrible American economy."

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
1:21 PM ET, 03/10/2009

Anthony Faiola writes in The Washington Post: "The Obama administration is aggressively reworking U.S. trade policy to more strongly emphasize domestic and social issues, from the displacement of American workers to climate change. Even as world trade takes its steepest drop in 80 years amid the global economic crisis, the administration is preparing to take a harder line with America's trading partners. It will seek new benchmarks before supporting already-written trade agreements with Colombia and South Korea and is suggesting that it will dig in its heels on global trade talks, demanding that other countries make broader concessions first." Here is the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative's new policy statement.

Steven Aftergood blogs for Secrecy News: "Many of the most substantive and significant documents generated by the Obama Administration to date are surprisingly absent from the White House web site...The White House web site does notify Americans that the First Lady visited Miriam's Kitchen last week to help feed the homeless, which is good to know. But its web page about the President's Intelligence Advisory Board does not provide meaningful information about the Board, not even a list of members. In short, the current White House web site does not present a reliable or complete record of Presidential actions or activities. For that, one still has to turn elsewhere."

Michelle Boorstein writes in The Washington Post: "Prayer has become more common at presidential appearances under the Obama administration, including at nonreligious events such as stimulus rallies. The White House is acting in a deliberately inclusive, interfaith way that seems to limit opposition....The policy, first reported in U.S. News & World Report, appears to continue a new White House approach to religion: invite piety and spirituality at every opportunity, but with a new emphasis on interfaith participants and atheists."

In the New York Times, Rachel L. Swarns profiles Jocelyn Frye, "the first lady's policy and projects director, helping Mrs. Obama develop a policy platform and a presence in this city."

And CBS News's Mark Knoller offers a day-by-day look at Obama's first 50 days.

Playing by the Rules

By Dan Froomkin
12:09 PM ET, 03/10/2009

Former president George W. Bush made up his own rules as he went along.

Two of the most vivid examples of this were his repeated suppression and distortion of scientific findings when they conflicted with his political goals and his unprecedented use of "signing statements" to defy Congress and unilaterally reject duly enacted legislation he disagreed with.

In a speech yesterday, President Obama announced that he was removing barriers Bush had imposed on stem-cell research and reasserting the role of science and the scientific process in the White House's policy-making process.

But it was in a less-heralded action -- his issuing of a memo that outlined his approach to signing statements and essentially suspended all of Bush's -- that Obama made an even more significant break with his predecessor. Because while the actual effect of Bush's signing statements remains something of a mystery, they were perhaps the most blatant example of Bush's theory of presidential unilateralism.

In his memo, Obama chose not to ban signing statements per se -- which could have been a bit of an overreaction -- but rather said he would restore them to their traditional, utterly unexceptional role.

Before Bush, signing statements were sometimes used to assert narrowly defined Constitutional concerns about small, specific portions of legislation that weren't worth vetoing a whole bill over. More often, they were used to provide guidance to the agencies charged with enforcing the legislation.

By contrast, Bush -- or more accurately, former vice president Dick Cheney's legal adviser and chief of staff, David S. Addington -- used signing statements to reject major elements of legislation. And this was done with vague language based on bizarre and utterly untested legal theories. A typical admonition was that the executive branch would "construe" key provisions that troubled it "in a manner consistent with the President's constitutional authority to supervise the unitary executive branch."

By contrast, Obama declared in his memo yesterday that, "signing statements should not be used to suggest that the President will disregard statutory requirements on the basis of policy disagreements."

He vowed to adhere to several principles, including: "I will act with caution and restraint, based only on interpretations of the Constitution that are well-founded" and, "I will ensure that signing statements identify my constitutional concerns about a statutory provision with sufficient specificity to make clear the nature and basis of the constitutional objection."

Appropriately enough, the story about Obama's memo was broken on the Web by Charlie Savage, who as a Boston Globe reporter led a lonely crusade to bring the signing statements to the public's attention. Although his dogged and groundbreaking coverage was routinely ignored by larger media organizations, Savage won a Pulitzer Prize for his work -- and now works at the New York Times.

Savage writes this morning on page A12 of the Times: "Calling into question the legitimacy of all the signing statements that former President George W. Bush used to challenge new laws, President Obama ordered executive officials on Monday to consult with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. before relying on any of them to bypass a statute.

"But Mr. Obama also signaled that he intended to use signing statements himself if Congress sent him legislation with provisions he decided were unconstitutional. He promised to take a modest approach when using the statements, legal documents issued by a president the day he signs bills into law that instruct executive officials how to put the statutes into effect....

"Mr. Obama’s directions were the latest step in his administration’s effort to deal with a series of legal and policy disputes it inherited from the Bush administration...

"Mr. Bush’s use of signing statements led to fierce controversy. He frequently used them to declare that provisions in the bills he was signing were unconstitutional constraints on executive power, and that the laws did not need to be enforced or obeyed as written. The laws he challenged included a ban on torture and requirements that Congress be given detailed reports about how the Justice Department was using the counterterrorism powers in the USA Patriot Act....

"Mr. Bush, who broke all records, us[ed] signing statements to challenge about 1,200 sections of bills over his eight years in office, about twice the number challenged by all previous presidents combined, according to data compiled by Christopher Kelley, a political science professor at Miami University in Ohio.

"Many of Mr. Bush’s challenges were based on an expansive view of the president’s power, as commander in chief, to take actions he believes necessary, regardless of what Congress says in legislation."

For more background on signing statements, read some of my many columns about them over the years.

Michael D. Shear writes in The Washington Post: "Former Bush administration officials said they could detect little difference between Obama's promise and Bush's standards for issuing signing statements.

"'This has been a standard practice going back decades. It's just when President Bush did it, his critics pounced,' said former Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer. 'They're going to do the same thing, whenever they feel like it.'"

But that's disingenuous at best.

Obama Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters that the president wants to "to go back to what has been previously done" rather than "ask that laws be disallowed simply by executive fiat."

White House Chat

By Dan Froomkin
9:29 AM ET, 03/10/2009

I'll be hosting my regular White House Watch Live Online chat tomorrow at 1 p.m. ET. You can submit your questions and comments now. You can also add suggested topics in comments to this post.

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:25 AM ET, 03/10/2009

Tom Toles on wishful thinking, Signe Wilkinson on Obama's bedside manner, Bruce Plante on nostalgia for the old ways, Jim Morin on a sense of normalcy, John Sherffius, Nick Anderson, Mark Streeter and Jimmy Margulies on stem-cell research, David Fitzsimmons and Clay Bennett on the return of science, Tony Auth on the victory of science over ideology, Joel Pett on one big exception, David Horsey on Bush's science advisor, Steve Sack on Treasury policy, and Bill Mitchell on Bush's closet.

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