Page last updated at 19:35 GMT, Tuesday, 8 September 2009 20:35 UK

Obama gives back-to-school speech

'The future of America depends on you'

US President Barack Obama has urged American schoolchildren to work hard and not to give up, in an education speech that has stirred a partisan row.

In Tuesday's speech at a Virginia high school, Mr Obama told children their country's future depended on their educational achievement.

But conservatives have complained he is trying to indoctrinate children to serve his political agenda.

The wording of some teaching aids was changed following the criticism.

'Work hard'

In his speech, Mr Obama told students at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia, that in addition to teachers, parents and the government, they themselves are responsible for their educational success.

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"No matter what you want to do with your life - I guarantee you'll need an education to do it," he said.

As well as individual success, the future success of the country will depend on it, Mr Obama said in the speech.

The speech was broadcast on a cable TV station and on the White House website.

"Your goal can be something as simple as doing all your homework, paying attention in class, or spending time each day reading a book," Mr Obama said.

"Being successful is hard," Mr Obama added - and he pointed to figures such as JK Rowling and Michael Jordan, who he said overcame initial failures in order to find success.

"No-one's born being good at things."

'Socialist ideology'

But even before President Obama had delivered his speech, it was attracting criticism from conservatives.

Some said it was not promoting education but aimed at indoctrinating children into supporting the president.

The BBC's Mark Mardell
Perhaps I am wrong that it is inoffensive: maybe 'No-one's born being good at things' is close to communism
Mark Mardell, BBC North America editor

Last week, Florida Republican Party chairman Jim Greer said he was "absolutely appalled that taxpayer dollars are being used to spread President Obama's socialist ideology".

Parents' complaints that the speech would be one-sided prompted some school districts not to broadcast it, and others to allow parents to withdraw their children.

On Monday, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs rejected the criticism, calling it a "sad, sad day that the political back-and-forth has intruded on anyone's speaking to schoolchildren and parents about the responsibilities they have".

But the education department acknowledged that a teaching aid which suggested students write about "how they could help the president" was poorly worded.

It released an amended version.

In light of the change, Mr Greer said he now approved of the address, reported Associated Press.


This is a President who once again shows that he has no idea of the proper role of government. If the President wants to talk about governmental affairs, great. I'd love for him to stop by our school to do so. That would be a great experience for the kids. But I do not want the President trying to raise my children. When people ask, "how can you object to the President urging kids to stay in school," I ask them what they'd think if I stopped by their house one night, uninvited, to tell their kids how to behave.

RedState's Brad Smith does not like being told how to bring up his children.

If our political discourse was mature and functioned as it should, President Obama's speech to school kids today would probably be an afterthought. The remarks would have likely garnered a few paragraphs in an AP story, and maybe 30 seconds on the evening news. But that's not American politics in 2009, and the decision of the president to encourage young people to do well in school is grounds for a national "controversy," due entirely to the fact that conservatives' threshold for hysteria has become comically low.

Steve Benen, blogging at Washington Monthly, thinks conservatives have created a storm in a teacup.

I don't think Obama's speech to schoolkids should be much of a controversy, especially since they revised the questionable "[have students] write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president" lesson plans. The speech is well-done and heaven knows that we could use more talk about personal responsibility in schools (as well as with regard to the rest of Obama's policy agenda, but I digress).

The National Review's Mark Hemingway gives the speech a cautious thumbs up.

The president's calm, inspiring and somewhat stern address to students today was classic Obama. The administration made one mis-step: the language on the website asking kids to think of what they could do to help the president (they should have asked what they could do to help the country). But the uproar - especially in secessionist Texas - and the extraordinary talk radio hysteria whipped up by the loony right was the real political mistake - and it wasn't Obama's.

The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan thinks Mr Obama's political skills remain formidable.

My focus group of one five-year-old made it about three minutes into Obama's speech before wandering off...

Politico's Ben Smith consulted an expert.

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