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Obama, School Children, and the Subtle Attack on Federalism

Samuel Staley
September 8, 2009, 6:25pm

President Obama's speech to America's school children today raised a lot of eyebrows and more than a few protests, with many political opponents openly voicing concerns about brainwashing. My colleague at Reason online, Jesse Walker, has a thoughtful and useful summary of the key issues and notes that the speech would be objectionable regardless of who is in office.

Specifically, one of Jese's objections is that a president speaking directly to school children, without a proper filter, contributes to a "bipartisan cult of the presidency." We're supposed to have a government with Seperation of Powers, so that competition keeps each branch in check. We are also supposed to have a Federalist system that keeps the Federal government from getting too big.

A bit later, Jesse writes:

"Children shouldn't be taught that the president—any president—is a beloved paternal figure with a grand plan for everyone. (From the original lesson plan: "Students might think about: What specific job is he asking me to do? Is he asking anything of anyone else? Teachers? Principals? Parents? The American people?") Children should be taught the truth: that presidents are polarizing figures who are constantly dogged by controversy. That Americans don't always agree about proper public policy, and sometimes they disagree enough to do something as drastic as keeping their kids home from school. That politics is about conflict, not listening in unison while a friendly face on a TV screen dispenses instructions."

I agree, but think there is more to this speech, and Obama's implicit approach to the presidency, than many people may recognize. Without a doubt, the speech was likely rewritten many times once the controversy blew up, and the content ended up being rather dull and non-objectionable. But, the last paragraph in the speech caught my attention (emphasis added):

Your families, your teachers, and I are doing everything we can to make sure you have the education you need to answer these questions. I’m working hard to fix up your classrooms and get you the books, equipment and computers you need to learn. But you’ve got to do your part too. So I expect you to get serious this year. I expect you to put your best effort into everything you do. I expect great things from each of you. So don’t let us down – don’t let your family or your country or yourself down. Make us all proud. I know you can do it.

Let's see: the President of the United States is working hard to fix America's schools. Most children probably don't know that elementary and secondary education is a state and local responsibility. A serious erosion of this responsibility occurred under George W. Bush with No Child Left Behind, where national standards were imposed on schools. And granted, the long-term trend has been toward empowering the federal government. But, Obama is extending the federal role even further by claiming bricks and mortar is also a fundamental federal responsibility.

In short, we see in this speech another example of a president with little respect for basic principles of Federalism. It's not just the cult of the presidency; it's a cult of the omnipotent Federal government, too.

More Reason Foundation blog posts on Federalism can be found here, here, here, and here.


Samuel Staley is Research Fellow


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