Conservative activists blasted it as socialist. Worried parents called for boycotts. School administrators struggled over whether to let students hear it.
But in the “back to school” speech Barack Obama plans to give today, he will do what American presidents have done before -- urge students to work hard, stay in school and follow their dreams.
“If you quit on school, you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country,” Obama will say in the speech, which is loaded with similar exhortations. The White House released a transcript of the president’s remarks Monday afternoon in hopes of neutralizing those who have charged he was promoting a political agenda.
The address, intended as an innocuous back-to-school missive, has proven to be another late summer distraction for the White House in what is emerging as a crucial period for Obama. With his poll numbers sagging, the president had hoped this week to focus on winning public support for his top priority -- overhauling the healthcare system. But other controversies, small and large, have gotten in the way.
Over the weekend, for example, a top Obama environmental advisor resigned amid a dust-up over remarks he made about Republicans and the fact that he had signed a petition questioning whether the U.S. government had played a role in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
In the transcript of the school speech released Monday, Obama cited the importance of education as an equalizer, the power of social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter, and the importance of working hard and taking personal responsibility.
He plans to talk of the challenges faced by young people in a media culture that seems to offer opportunities to get rich quick.
“I know that sometimes you get the sense from TV that you can be rich and successful without any hard work -- that your ticket to success is through rapping or basketball or being a reality TV star when, chances are, you’re not going to be any of those things,” the president will say.
“But the truth is, being successful is hard. You won’t love every subject you study. You won’t click with every teacher. Not every homework assignment will seem completely relevant to your life right this minute. And you won’t necessarily succeed at everything the first time you try.”
Obama’s speech draws on his own experiences -- and those of his wife, Michelle -- to argue that education is the key to personal success and to the success of the nation.
“You’ll need the knowledge and problem-solving skills you learn in science and math . . . to develop new energy technologies and protect our environment,” the president will say. His speech also calls for young people to battle poverty and injustice.
Obama is scheduled to deliver the speech from a high school in Arlington, Va., at noon EDT. It will be shown on the White House website and on C-Span.
Presidents George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan gave similar addresses, and both attracted a bit of controversy. But the reaction to Obama’s planned speech has been heightened by the political fight over healthcare and economic issues and a furious effort by conservatives to organize opposition.
When plans for the speech were first announced, they included a “menu of classroom activities” from the Department of Education that included a suggestion that schoolchildren write letters to themselves about how they could “help the president.” The department changed the language to suggest students write “about how they can achieve their short-term and long-term education goals.”
Jim Greer, chairman of the Florida Republican Party, said in a statement that he was “absolutely appalled that taxpayer dollars are being used to spread President Obama’s socialist ideology.”
On Monday, after the transcript was released, Greer said that he favored the speech.
“It’s a good speech,” Greer told ABC News. “It encourages kids to stay in school and the importance of education, and I think that’s what a president should do when they’re going to talk to students across the country.”
Other Republicans have taken a calmer approach from the start. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia defended the idea of the speech, telling Fox News Sunday: “It is good to have the president of the United States saying to young people across America stay in school and do your homework. It’s good for America.”
Monday afternoon, one critic issued a statement lauding the White House for posting an advance copy of the speech.
“Parents, teachers and local school leaders were not wrong to look with suspicion on a federally developed curriculum to accompany this speech,” said Alexa Marrero, an aide to Republican Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, the ranking member of the House Education and Workforce Committee who initially was critical of the plan. “The strong reaction we’ve seen from coast to coast is a reminder that federal intrusion into the classroom brings with it a number of unintended consequences. It’s a lesson we should remember as Congress looks to reform our education laws in the coming months and years.”
Speaking aboard Air Force One as Obama was headed to a Labor Day appearance in Cincinnati, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said: “I think it’s a sad, sad day that the political back-and-forth has intruded on anyone speaking to schoolchildren and teachers and parents about the responsibilities that they have as we enter a new school year.
“If one kid in one school hears one message and goes from being a D student to a C student, then the speech is worth it. If one kid decides not to drop out of school, then the speech is worth it.”
Peter Nicholas in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.