President Obama’s second back-to-school address contained a similar message of studiousness on Tuesday, but unlike last year, the speech failed to ignite partisan flames and cries of socialist indoctrination.
Controversy over the president’s first such address stemmed from a suggested lesson plan issued by the Education Department that asked students to reflect on how they could help the president. That exercise, though later modified, set off a media frenzy and led some critics to keep their children home.
This time around, the White House appeared to have learned its lesson and avoided a similar brouhaha by issuing Mr. Obama’s straightforward and - judging by the lack of conservative backlash - uncontroversial address ahead of time.
In his remarks, made at a magnet school in Philadelphia, Mr. Obama told students nothing is out of their reach if they apply themselves to their education, and used his own experience being chided by his mother over his studies to urge them not to be discouraged.
“Eventually, her words had their intended effect. I got serious about my studies. I made an effort. And I began to see my grades - and my prospects - improve. And I know that if hard work could make the difference for me, it can make the difference for you, too,” Mr. Obama told students at Masterman High School.
The address was a rare respite from Mr. Obama’s campaign-season rhetoric, which he has stepped up in recent weeks heading into November by highlighting what he and other Democrats describe as Republican obstructionism of priorities that would aid small businesses.
Speaking with reporters on Air Force One on Tuesday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan called last year’s flap “silly” and said Mr. Obama has a unique ability to relate to students.
“He wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth,” Mr. Duncan said. “He’s been through things that many of our children in places like Philadelphia and around the country are experiencing. And he’s the leader of the free world today because he got a great education and worked hard.”
The president noted that the current recession and an increasingly global marketplace meant the stakes were even higher for today’s students. He urged them to overcome challenges such as bullies or broken families and dedicate themselves to their studies.
Mr. Obama’s education policies are one of a few areas where he often breaks with traditional allies. Teachers unions and some civil rights groups have been turned off by his marquee “Race to the Top” initiative, which advocates rewarding good teachers based on performance while penalizing those who don’t show progress. The federal grant program also calls for radical steps to turn around failing schools.
Indeed, the president’s school-related proposals have even won him some high-profile conservative fans. One admirer who has praised his ideas is former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whose brother similarly drew the ire of teachers’ unions with his support for the No Child Left Behind law.