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Hotline's Latest Edition / AGAINST THE GRAIN

The Education of President Obama

The president has an opportunity for a significant bipartisan accomplishment with education reform.

Obama: Teaching moment.(Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

photo of Josh Kraushaar
January 19, 2011

Updated at 7:54 a.m. on January 19.

President Obama hasn’t even delivered his State of the Union yet, and he’s already rehabilitated his presidency to the point that the disastrous midterms seem like a distant memory.

In the intervening two months, he’s achieved two of the three accomplishments that played a significant role in former President Bill Clinton’s first-term comeback: a staff shakeup; a stirring speech in the wake of a tragedy; and triangulating on a major issue like welfare reform, where he can embrace an element of the conservative agenda as his own. 

His first act was as surprising as it was swift, given Obama’s tendency to distrust those not in his inner circle. He dispatched longtime loyalists like David Axelrod out of the White House and brought in centrists who can reach out to the Republican-controlled House and the business community.


Obama’s selection of William Daley as chief of staff, who publicly chided the administration for its excessive rhetoric and health care hubris, was a masterstroke that even Karl Rove came to praise in the Wall Street Journal. Less noticed but equally important was tapping Democratic Leadership Council veteran Bruce Reed as Vice President Joe Biden’s chief of staff. Reed’s name has long been a curse word for progressives, but he will be instrumental in promoting policies that appeal to independents—as he did in crafting welfare reform and anti-crime legislation during his time in the Clinton White House.

Obama’s moving memorial speech to the victims of the Tucson, Ariz., shooting was a necessity, and he delivered with flying colors. He defanged some of his most relentless conservative critics, like the Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer and former President George W. Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen, who lauded Obama’s remarks in grand terms. Even if the speech itself wasn’t political, the need to put the presidency on a pedestal and place the president above all the vitriol was of critical political importance. It echoed Clinton’s speech after the Oklahoma City bombing, which transformed his standing.

A disastrous outcome of the midterm elections is that Obama made himself seem unpresidential—whether it was delivering red meat rhetoric against Republicans to his base or getting poked fun of on The Daily Show.  

It was to rally the base to try to save House and Senate seats, but it was at the expense of the stature of the presidency. With a soaring speech that at least temporarily united the country, Obama has gotten back the mantle of leadership that held him in such good stead during the 2008 campaign.

Now, revitalized as he prepares for a pivotal State of the Union address next week, he has the opportunity to use the final Clinton card—the art of triangulation.   
Many analysts gave the president credit for achieving three priorities during last year’s lame-duck session: repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell,” extending the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, and ratifying the New START treaty. But let’s be honest—he won’t win or lose reelection on those issues.

The tax deal will be a distant memory and re-debated in 2012, voters could not care less about a Russian nuclear treaty, and passing a key civil rights issue for gay Americans won’t win Obama many votes he didn’t already have in the bank.

But there’s one issue screaming for him to embrace given the opportunity: education reform.

White House officials are hinting that education will play a role in the speech, and if the administration’s new staff is astute, it will be one of their biggest priorities.
It offers Obama the chance to triangulate by taking on teachers’ unions for discouraging common-sense reforms—from defending outdated hiring and tenure practices guaranteeing poor teachers a job-for-life, discouraging merit pay for the most talented teachers, and squelching school choice opportunities, especially for children stuck in poor-performing inner-city schools.

Many education reform ideas were once the sole province of conservative Republicans. Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson pushed for one of the country’s first school-choice programs, allowing inner-city kids to have a shot at a good education, a program that was duplicated elsewhere. In Florida, former Gov. Jeb Bush expanded charter schools, implemented a voucher program and now heads an educational think tank promoting these reforms. Most recently, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has taken on teacher tenure, and it’s the centerpiece of an educational initiative he trumpeted on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

But it's been the embrace of reform-minded liberals—like former Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty; Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker; and most recently the director Davis Guggenheim (of Waiting for Superman fame)—that provided momentum for implementing these reforms, which were often blocked by the teacher's unions with aid from Democratic politicians. MSNBC’s relentless devotion to the plight of students in failing, inner-city schools has put powerful figures like American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten on the defensive, forced to explain how it's near-impossible to fire unqualified teachers and promote accomplished ones.

Thanks to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the administration has played an important role, with programs like the “Race to the Top” fund that gives grants to states that encourage innovation in education. But Obama himself hasn’t been outspoken on the topic, and he shut down the successful D.C. Opportunity Scholarship voucher program due to vocal opposition from the teachers’ unions. Teachers’ union PACs are some of the best-funded and most reliable supporters of Democrats.

With Republican presidential candidates like former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels touting educational reform, Obama has the ability to embrace the issue as his own—and nip criticism in the bud. It would be especially strong for Obama to rebuke a powerful special interest in the name of civil rights and bipartisanship.  

It would be the parallel to Clinton’s embrace of welfare reform—a conservative issue led by Republican governors that was later championed by Clinton and led to major bipartisan legislation in time for the 1996 presidential election, which he won running away. Much of the president's base howled at the law, but it made him new friends on the right, cemented his reelection and gave him a lasting legacy.

Obama has the opportunity next week to capitalize on his improved standing and begin a significant bipartisan undertaking. If he puts the same effort into education as he did with health care, it will go a long way for his 2012 race.

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