It would be one thing if Obama used the speech to denounce Republicans or their policies, but he didn't, of course. Telling kids to do well in school is "indoctrination"? I was ready to denounce this as a sign that we're in a uniquely depressing hyperpartisan age. But—and I'm not sure whether to find this depressing or comforting—last year wasn't the first time a president was raked over the coals by the opposition party for delivering a completely harmless message to American students.
The ever-useful PolitiFact has the research on this one: In 1991, President G.W. Bush spoke to students at a junior high school in Washington, DC, and his remarks were broadcast to students around the nation.
The Democrats realized this wasn't a big deal and that it would be foolish to make it one.
"The Department of Education should not be producing paid political advertising for the president, it should be helping us to produce smarter students," said Rep. Richard Gephardt, then the Democratic majority leader in the House of Representatives."And the president should be doing more about education than saying, 'Lights, camera, action.'"
Patricia Schroeder, then a Democratic member of Congress from Colorado, said the speech showed "the arrogance of power," and that the White House should not be "using precious dollars for campaigns" when "we are struggling for every silly dime we can get" for education.
New Gingrich—and here's a sentence you won't get from me very often—was the voice of reason. The House whip at the time, he asked, "Why is it political for the president of the United States to discuss education? It was done at a nonpolitical site and was beamed to a nonpolitical audience... They wanted to reach the maximum audience with the maximum effect to improve education."
Still, though, it's understandable the Democrats were a bit concerned, given that during an address to and Q&A with students in 1986, President Reagan went very political:
When we came into office, the top personal tax rate that the Federal Government could put on your income was 70 percent. Now, you can understand, I think, that if you were getting up in those brackets -- there were 14 different tax brackets, depending on the amount of money in each bracket you earned. And when you could look and say, "If I earn another dollar, I only get to keep 30 cents out of it," you can imagine the lack of incentive there. Well, we lowered it to 50 percent, and the economy really took off. Now we're trying to lower it yet again so that families can keep more of their money and so the national economy will be lean and trim and fit for the future.
Those kids must have been a bit confused. Hopefully they at least had notebooks so they could take down all the numbers being thrown at them.