Despite the end-times warnings of frothing at the mouth conservatives, President Obama delivered a predictably uplifting and unsurprisingly appropriate speech to America's schoolchildren. But by drawing praise from the likes of Laura Bush and Jim Greer, the Florida Republican chairman who helped manufacture the faux outrage over an American President speaking to American students, Obama missed the chance to speak truths the people, and especially his opponents and the U.S. media, so badly needed to hear.
Here, then, is "Taking Responsibility: Don't Embarrass the Nation," the school speech I wish President Obama could have given.
Prepared Remarks of President Barack Obama
Back to School Event
"Taking Responsibility: Don't Embarrass Our Nation"
September 8, 2009
I would like to thank you, the principals, teachers, parents and most of all the students of America for letting me join you to start the 2009 school year. As Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced, I want to use this opportunity to "challenge students to work hard, set educational goals and take responsibility for their learning."
As President, nothing is more important to the future of our nation than making sure all of you have a world-class education that prepares you not only for success in the global economy, but for a life of fulfillment and joy.
This isn't just talk for me; it's personal. As I've said before, my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely. In no other country on Earth is my story even possible. The son of an anthropologist from Kansas and a Kenyan goat herder, I am living proof that even for a skinny kid with a funny name, anything is possible in America.
Today, I want to make a deal with you. We will do everything we can to provide you with the best possible schools. In exchange, you will prove - each and every one of you - that in a generous America, you don't have to be rich to achieve your potential. If you work hard, stay in school, obey your parents and yes, turn off the television set and put the video games away, you can achieve anything. Whether you want to be a scientist or soldier, firefighter or computer programmer, an artist or an architect, all of your dreams are possible in America. But realizing them is in your hands.
But there's another part of our deal. My challenge to you isn't just to take responsibility for yourselves. It is to be a better American, an informed citizen who participates in the life of our democracy. Because if you don't, if you quit, if you stop reading, if you won't make the commitment to a lifetime of learning about the issues that matter to us all as Americans, your life will be that much emptier and our nation that much weaker. In our democracy, ignorance is inexcusable and it's an embarrassment that shames you and our nation alike.
I want to give you a few examples of the ways large and small that turning your back on the truth makes the United State of America not just divided and diminished, but an international laughingstock:
- In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq, supposedly to disarm Saddam Hussein. But as we learned to our horror, Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. As the 9/11 Commission concluded, Saddam also had no role in the September 11 attacks and no relationship with the despicable Al Qaeda terrorists who carried it out. Yet as late as July 2006, fully 50% of Americans still believed the discredited claim that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction. That's just ignorant and it embarrasses our nation.
- During the election, I promised that as President, I would provide tax cuts to 95% of American households. With the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), your government did just that. As one analyst concluded, "Obama has cut taxes for 98.6% of working households." Yet thousands of Americans took to the streets proclaiming the opposite and calling for a "second American Tea Party." Misunderstanding our American revolution and its cry of "no taxation without representation" shames them and our Founding Fathers alike. That's just ignorant and it embarrasses our nation.
- 46 million Americans, including almost all of your grandparents, receive health care insurance from a government program called Medicare. Yet 39% of Americans, including 62% of those who voted for my opponent John McCain in last year's election, say your government should "stay out of Medicare." That's just ignorant and it embarrasses our nation.
- There are even people who claim your government wants to "pull the plug on grandma." Many of them happen to be leaders of the Republican Party. That's not just wrong, it's dangerous: 45% of Americans believe that lie, including 75% of viewers of Fox News. That's just ignorant and it embarrasses our nation.
- This willful ignorance, too, is personal. I was born in Hawaii in 1961; you can even read about it in the newspapers from that time. Yet 58% of Republicans do not believe (28%) or are unsure (30%) that I was in fact born in the United States and so doubt I am eligible to be president under the United States Constitution. Just as shocking, 10% of all Americans aren't sure if Hawaii is even part of the United States. That's just ignorant and it embarrasses our nation.
My predecessor, George W. Bush famously said, "Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?" President Bush also said he would not stand for the "soft bigotry of low expectations." Make no mistake, as President of the United States I will not stand for either bigotry or low expectations. And neither should you.
If you accept my challenge to do your best, to study and to work hard, you guarantee not only that you will be proud of yourself, but that Americans can be proud of their nation and each other. If not, if you ignore the lessons of science, turn your back on learning and the truth, you and our country will be the poorer for it. If you just muddle through, content to be a C student, you ensure that the United States will no longer be a beacon for the world.
Even if, as President Bush boasted, "I'm the C student, and just look at who's the president."
* The above is, of course, completely fictional. The message is one President Obama would never deliver, even if the American people badly need to hear it.