Opinion: Obama invokes Gandhi as a personal hero in speech to students

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[Updated, 1:05 p.m.: An earlier version of this post misspelled the name of Mohandas Gandhi.]

The summer of President Obama’s political discontent is drawing to a close, but for those seeking to understand how he wields power as he maneuvers through the tricky maze of autumn’s healthcare battles, he dropped a few clues when he talked to ninth-graders in Virginia.

Obama went to Wakefield High School in Arlington to give a national speech welcoming students back to school. He called for students to take responsibility and to learn from their failures so that they succeed in the end.


Despite some conservative misgivings, Obama’s comments were far from controversial. (Full text available here, as usual on The Ticket.) After all, calling on students to work hard and get ahead is as close to mom and apple pie as one can get.

But before the speech, Obama met with 32 ninth-graders and took some questions. The most interesting came from a student identified in the White House transcripts as Lily: “And if you could have dinner with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be,” she asked to laughter.

“Well, you know, dead or alive, that’s a pretty big list,” Obama replied to more chuckles. “You know, I think that it might be Gandhi, who is a real hero of mine.”

Obama praised Gandhi, whose creed of nonviolent political action helped liberate India from British colonial rule. Gandhi led hunger strikes and acts of civil disobedience that embarrassed the....

...British and eventually paralyzed their rule.

“Now, it would probably be a really small meal because, he didn’t eat a lot,” Obama said of the Indian spiritual as well as political leader. “But he’s somebody who I find a lot of inspiration in. He inspired Dr. King, so if it hadn’t been for the nonviolent movement in India, you might not have seen the same nonviolent movement for civil rights here in the United States. He inspired César Chávez,” one of the founders of the United Farm Workers union and the modern Latino power movement.

Obama told the students that Gandhi represents the power of change through ethics and how to use that morality to foster change, themes he has repeated through his presidential campaign and administration. Obama, who will speak to Congress on Wednesday about healthcare reform, has been recently taking a page from the Gandhi playbook, urging citizens to pressure their representatives.

He is also likely to stress the morality of making healthcare available to more people, along with his usual plea that reform is needed for financial reasons.

But facing sharp divisions in Congress and within his own Democratic Party, Obama also stressed Gandhi’s fighting spirit and will to overcome long odds. Gandhi helped “people who thought they had no power realize that they had power and then helped people who had a lot of power realize that if all they’re doing is oppressing people, then that’s not a really good exercise of power.”

– Michael Muskal

No doubt due to time constraints, the president neglected to mention that becoming well-educated involves clicking here for Twitter alerts of each new Ticket item. Or follow us @latimestot