The Obama Watch

There He Goes Again

The real lesson from Obama's school speech.

By 9.9.09

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Many American children did not see President Obama's live address to school kids yesterday, not for political reasons, but for practical ones. There's a lesson in that outcome, but for the president as much as for the kids. Alas, he's unlikely to learn it.

Here in New Hampshire, America's Ground Zero for presidential politics, the state's largest school district did not show the president's address. Initially, Manchester's school superintendent told principals they could show it if they wanted to. But then he reviewed the school system's policy on guest speakers. Turns out the schools would need to have written permission from parents before allowing the speech to be viewed in class. There wasn't enough time to get all that done by Tuesday, so the superintendent nixed the speech.

One high-ranking administrator, who is a Democrat, told me he wanted to show the speech, but even if he had been able to, it ate into class time and he's "got to focus on instructional activities."

When Democratic school administrators say that keeping the kids focused on their school work is more important than showing them a video of the president telling them to focus on their school work, it ought to be clear that this televised address wasn't thoroughly thought-out.

In Medford, Mass., the superintendent screened the speech first before deciding whether to let social studies teachers use it in class. In Florida, the superintendent of the Collier County School District wrote to his staff, "I have concluded that due to the logistics of making a Webcast available during that time of the school day, we will not be showing this address in Collier County School District classrooms or campuses."

Across the country, many districts and individual schools couldn't get the speech aired live for procedural or logistical reasons. That ought to sound familiar by now. It's exactly the same problem that has plagued every major Obama initiative from the stimulus bill through "cash for clunkers" to health care reform.

Obama is full of ideas that sounds great in theory. Stimulate the economy! Reform health care! Give a live pep-talk to America's students! But in practice they've all broken down upon implementation.

The stimulus bill was rushed into law, but the government couldn't get the money out quickly enough for it to boost the economy in the spring. It will take another year before most of the money is spent.

"Cash for clunkers" was supposed to be an easy way to improve fuel efficiency and stimulate the economy. But economists say it didn't stimulate demand as much as shift it. People who were going to buy cars later went ahead and bought them this summer. The public cost was astronomical, the benefit tiny, and billions of dollars' worth of functional automobiles -- a form of wealth -- were destroyed. And the implementation was a nightmare. Washington changed the list of qualifying cars after the program started, and auto dealers still don't know if they'll be repaid for discounts they've already given.

Health care reform was supposed to be signed by last month. But as with the stimulus bill, Obama promoted it with lofty words and let Congress write the details. The result was a bureaucratic nightmare that would not control costs while itself costing more than $1 trillion and increasing the federal deficit.

All of these efforts shared the same trajectory. Obama announced the idea, rushed it through while leaving the details and implementation to others, and watched in dismay as it didn't work as intended.

The president is an idea man. As the McCain campaign noted to no avail, he's never managed anything more complicated than a pick-up basketball game. His whole career has been spent promoting theories, but he's spent no time actually trying to make them work. The disconnect is showing.

The presidency doesn't require managerial experience, of course. But it helps. Some politicians seem intuitively able to account for the logistical difficulties inherent in putting any grand scheme into operation. Obama doesn't seem to have that ability. So far, he has operated as if his word alone is enough to execute a plan with perfection.

As the wreckage of plan after plan piles up, he seems oblivious to all of it. And maybe he is. He lamented to students yesterday that he lives in the proverbial "bubble" that prevents presidents from interacting with regular folks in a casual way. That is true, but with this president there's an additional bubble, a distorting cloud of left-wing political theory through which he sees the world not as it actually is but as he wishes it to be.

Thus the stimulus plan is "working," "cash for clunkers" is a "huge success," and opponents of health care reform are the only ones spinning the issue.

If the president doesn't at least temporarily step outside of his own ideological bubble from time to time, we're going to suffer through a lot more failed schemes as he pushes grand idea after grand idea and never looks back to examine, or even acknowledge, the wreckage.

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About the Author

Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader. You can follow him on Twitter at @Drewhampshire.