Obama Speech to Students Illustrates the Rise of Partisanship

Bush 41 and Obama gave similar speeches, but the opposition is wholly different.

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By Mary Kate Cary, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

On the first day of school, the president went to a high school to address students about the state of America's schools. Here's what he said:

... We haven't taken the time to read to our kids, to talk with them, to teach them the art of communication, how to think, how to write, how to speak clearly.

What happens at home really matters. And when our kids come home from school, do they pick up a book or do they sit glued to the tube watching music videos? Parents: Don't make the mistake of thinking your kids only learn from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. You are, and always will be, their first teachers.

That wasn't Barack Obama speaking in the library at Wakefield High School in Virginia this week. It was George H.W. Bush, speaking in the gym at Lewiston Comprehensive High School in Maine in the fall of 1991, 18 years ago.

Both presidents gave great speeches to high school kids. (Newt Gingrich made a point of saying that every student in America should read or watch President Obama's remarks on the White House Web site. I agree.) But that's where the similarity ends.

The difference between the two speeches is that 18 years ago, my former boss couldn't make the speech available on the White House Web site, and those who were upset by it—and there were some—couldn't stir up the opposition on Twitter and Facebook. The Internet, E-mail, and cell phones did not exist then as we know them now. There was no texting. I guess they could have spread the word by using a fax machine, but no one did. (The only other option would have been a direct snail-mail campaign to voters.) It was a kinder, gentler time in American politics. Before Monica Lewinsky, before Michael Moore.

This week's speech came at the end of a long, hot summer of partisanship. When I began my leave of absence from the blogosphere at the beginning of June to work on a client's writing project, the tone in politics was ugly. It's even worse now.

The president has one big speech this week done, one to go. It wasn't too difficult to speak to well-behaved school students yesterday, but look at the ruckus it caused. At the Capitol tonight, he's facing a bitterly divided, very partisan Congress and a wider audience of very agitated Americans, the vast majority of whom are understandably confused and worried about a massively expanding government.

The stakes are much higher tonight than they were yesterday.