Obama's School Speech Defuses Controversy

Conservatives Blasted Obama For Wanting to 'Indoctrinate' Children, But Fears Proved Unfounded


Sept. 8, 2009—

President Obama's back-to-school message to the nation's students, which drew so much criticism from those on the right before anyone knew what he would say, turned out to be little more than a pep talk on the importance of staying in school.

"We need every single one of you to develop your talents and your skills and your intellect so you can help us old folks solve our most difficult problems. If you don't do that, if you quit on school, you're not just quitting on yourself, you're quitting on your country," Obama said.

The back-to-school speech to children Tuesday afternoon did not contain the political views some parents said they feared it would.

James Noack spent last week handing out fliers at his son Maverick's school north of Houston that called the speech "socialist indoctrination of children" and had his son taken out of class during the speech. However, today, after hearing the speech, he had a different reaction.

"I think the only indoctrination was to stay in school," Noack said. "And that's a good message."

Yet in the days before his speech, a controversy had erupted, with some conservatives claiming the president would indoctrinate children with his political views, and urging parents to keep their children at home.

When previous American presidents, including Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, gave speeches to students, there was no similar furor, but in those days the reach of the media was not what it is today.

On Aug. 26, the White House officially announced Obama would be addressing students.

The next day, a conservative Web site criticized the speech, without even knowing what the president intended to say.

Just days later, on Sept. 1, Florida Republican Party chairman Jim Greer slammed the speech as "indoctrination." By the next day, conservative talk show hosts Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck had picked up the rallying cry.

"A lot of that opposition begins to feed itself. One person becomes a hundred people. A hundred people become a thousand," Republican strategist and former Gov. Mitt Romney spokesman Kevin Madden said.

Like Noack, Greer backed off his criticism of the president's speech when he actually read the text, which the White House released Monday.

The conservative echo chamber is not new, but this White House is operating in a vastly accelerated media environment, where one no longer needs to be in the presence of reporters to make news -- as the health care town halls this summer illustrated.

"Today you can arrange that protest yourself, photograph it with a handheld cell phone, post it on YouTube and if you can then generate enough views of that video on YouTube, you can make national news," said Tom Rosensteil, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

While the media loves a good fight -- even when the charges are unfounded -- there may be more to conservatives' complaints that play into larger concerns about the president on health care reform.

According to the latest Gallup poll numbers, from Aug. 12, 49 percent of Americans disapproved of the president's handling of health care reform, versus 43 percent who approved.

Overall, according to poll numbers from Aug. 26, the president has a 50 percent overall approval rating. He began the year at 68 percent.

While Obama may have run a successful presidential campaign, critics say the White House has been unprepared for the ferocity of the Republican opposition.

"You have to be aware of the opposition that is going to arise and have a plan to deal with it," Madden said.

The White House is clearly hoping that the president's speech to a joint session of Congress Wednesday on health care will create a new narrative: the comeback.

ABC News' Ryan Owens contributed to this story.