- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Invoking his own fatherless childhood and ignoring the political firestorm sparked by the address, President Obama on Tuesday asked the nation’s students to take personal responsibility for their future and said he expected them to put their best effort into their schoolwork.

“Don’t let us down - don’t let your family down, don’t let your country down. Most of all, don’t let yourself down,” Mr. Obama told nearly 1,000 students at Wakefield High School in Arlington in remarks that were piped into schools across the country.

The president stuck closely to his prepared text, after a furor erupted last week over the Department of Education’s accompanying lesson plan that urged students to write letters “about what they can do to help the president.” The wording was later changed to focus on educational goals, but some school districts across the country still refused to show Mr. Obama’s remarks in the face of parent protests.

After the text of the speech, which encouraged students to work hard and stay in school, was released early by the White House, many conservative critics backed down from last week’s warnings about “indoctrination” and said Mr. Obama was giving the right message.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told reporters before the speech that the broadcast was “totally voluntary” for schools, but noted that it would be uploaded to YouTube for children to watch on their own or with their parents after school.

He said his department feels a “huge sense of urgency” to cut the nation’s 30 percent dropout rate, adding that a president engaging students of all ages can only help.

But Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican, said the speech did not seem like an individual student choice, calling children “captives in their classroom.”

“Parents and teachers ought to be in charge of it, they should decide in what context it’s done,” said Mr. Alexander, a former secretary of education.

The Democratic National Committee offered its own rebuke of critics, sending a link to the speech to Mr. Obama’s more than 2.1 million Twitter followers with the note, “It should never be controversial to ask our students to stay in school.”

In his remarks, Mr. Obama told the nation’s schoolchildren that dropping out was not just a personal loss.

“If you quit on school, you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country,” Mr. Obama told the students, adding: “You cannot drop out of school and just drop into a great job.”

Mr. Obama said parents must make sure their children do homework and step away from the television sets, while teachers must inspire and push students to learn. But he added that the most dedicated teachers at the best schools and supportive parents aren’t sufficient for academic success.

“None of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities … and put in the hard work it takes to succeed,” Mr. Obama said.

While Tuesday’s speech text sparked little criticism, Mr. Obama has a history of appealing to the very young for political purposes. He targeted children to spread his message during the 2008 presidential campaign.

The campaign had a special “Kids for Obama” Web site, where children younger than 12 for the first time “have a place to go and actually vote - through their voice.”

“What a great way to be introduced to politics and to express your support for Senator Obama,” a welcome message on the site read in spring 2008.

The site offered a “Kids for Obama starter kit,” which included an Obama logo coloring sheet.

It urged children to “throw a party” or host a “sleepover” and to put Obama stickers on book bags. It also encouraged writing letters to the local paper and getting friends to participate in “T-shirt Thursday” by sporting Obama gear once a week at school.

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. wrote in his 2007 book “Promises to Keep” that he also often attempted to win votes by speaking to schoolchildren. He wrote that he would speak in the classroom in hopes the children would talk about him at dinner that night with their parents.

The Wakefield students didn’t seem to mind the controversy, carrying cameras and greeting Mr. Obama warmly from their seats in the school gym’s bleachers. Some wore Obama campaign T-shirts.

Wakefield Principal Doris Jackson asked students to “take time to be in the moment,” and to feel the “electricity” in the gym.

“You will be telling this story for years to come,” she said.

Before the speech, the president met with freshmen and told them his goals as a high school student were more about basketball and having fun than academics. He also warned them to be careful what they post on Facebook, because it could come back to haunt them in their professional careers.

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