This post was published this morning (8/9/11) in Valerie Strauss's Washington Post column, The Answer Sheet.
I’ve been a teacher for 40 years, so I tend to look at the world with teaching in mind. I’m interested in the way so many activities – from parenting to police work to physical therapy – involve teaching. There is an instructional dimension to them. I look at politics through this lens. Though it may be hard to imagine right now, politics can provide the occasion to teach, to inform, to frame an issue, to present an argument, to provide illustration, to move to action.
In an entry on this blog right after the 2008 election, I expressed the wish that President Obama would bring back and technologically update the FDR Fireside Chat – a seemingly obvious suggestion given his oratorical skill and his campaign’s use of new media. Here are a few passages to give you a sense of my appeal:
Between 1933 and 1944, during another period of economic crisis and war, FDR gave a series of thirty memorable radio speeches to the American people. The speeches covered topics of pressing importance: from the banking crisis, unemployment, and federal works programs to national security, the progress of the war, and plans for peace. The speeches were both political and educational; they inspired and instructed during difficult times.
We already have, of course, the weekly presidential radio address, but the revived Fireside Chats would be of a different order. In this regard, it is enlightening to read the originals. They are rich in information that is carefully presented and explained, and they blend reassurance with hard truths. The first one on the banking crisis, delivered one week after FDR’s inauguration, is uncannily relevant today.
During the campaign, Obama was mocked for being a professor, and the media tag “professorial” was deadly – implying aloofness and abstraction, a man out of touch. But there’s a flip side to this professorial business: someone who knows a lot, is thoughtful, sees value in teaching.
The best political speech is both inspirational and pedagogical. It moves us and informs us. … As a nation, we have a lot of learning to do, a lot of self-examining and reorienting of our economic and civic lives. Presidential addresses of the gravity of FDR’s Fireside Chats would help guide us. Barack Obama could become the education president in a unique and powerful sense of the word.
I read this post now with disappointment and sadness. There is deep dissatisfaction among many of us in education with the direction taken by the Department of Education under President Obama. Some of the Department's policies reveal a narrow understanding of learning and threaten to undermine teaching itself – so the appellation “Education President” grates. But what really sinks my heart is the lost opportunity for Barack Obama to be the education president in the way I meant it in the earlier post: the Political Teacher-in-Chief.
We rarely see or hear the man who delivered the captivating keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention or the powerful speech on race in 2008. He can still rise to the occasion, as he did earlier this year at the service for those slain in Arizona during the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. But he has yet to deliver a speech of this power and magnitude on the pressing issues of the day: the hardship of working America, job creation, health care, fair taxation and the deficit. To be sure, he has important things to say, but they come piecemeal, parts of speeches around the country, or during press conferences, where his trademark eloquence abandons him.
Nature abhors a vacuum. So does politics. In the rhetorical and pedagogical void, the Right has strategically rushed in to define the issues and frame the debates. And the conservative noise machine has produced sound bites that seem to go pretty much unchallenged: “job-killing taxes,” “class warfare,” “socialism,” the demonizing of economic stimulus, etc.
The frustrating thing is that on many of the big economic issues, the President has the facts and expert opinion on his side. A wide range of economists agree that significant short-term spending combined with long-term reductions are necessary. A similar range of economists advocate tax increases. No less a conservative figure than David Stockman, Ronald Reagan’s budget director, pointed out in a recent interview that President Reagan along with budget cuts raised taxes three times to counter recession. “We are raising 14% of GDP in taxes, the lowest since 1948. The Republican position that taxes aren’t part of this solution is nonsensical and can’t be defended.” Despite all the talk about job-killing tax increases, the Bush era tax cuts did not produce more jobs. Wages for most Americans have been stagnant for at least a decade, while the wealthiest among us have seen their incomes rise dramatically – the top 1% now hold between 35 to 40% of the nation's wealth. The income gap is widening – to levels not seen since the 1890s according to The Economist – and America’s cherished economic and social mobility has flattened. “There's class warfare,” quipped Warren Buffett, “but it's my class, the rich class, that's making war, and we're winning.”
One aspect of good teaching is presenting material in a clear and engaging way. Another is asking thought-provoking questions. And a third is to weave material and questions into a compelling story. There is a remarkable story to be told from the facts about America’s current economic and social structure, and what puzzles me is why one of the gifted political speakers of our time hasn’t told it with force and consistency.
I suppose the answer lies in his much-discussed desire to stake out the center, to be seen as the pragmatist, the negotiator and compromiser – and somehow that positioning works against the kind of forceful political pedagogy I’m advocating. If this is the case, it is proving to be a terrible political miscalculation. For a moderating centrism (a la The Audacity of Hope) to work, you can’t have a massive and uncompromising force pulling from one side of the table. Your imagined center moves inexorably in that direction; you lose your bearings. Journalist Robert Draper, currently writing a book on the House of Representatives, reports that the GOP sees Obama’s compromising posture as a sign of weakness.
Undoubtedly there's heavy analyzing and strategizing going on now in the White House. Whatever he and his advisors decide, we know that Barack Obama does not have the temperament to respond to GOP strategy with bone-crushing tactics or with red-meat rhetoric. But he is by temperament a teacher. He's done the work.
He needs to reclaim that part of his past as the next debate on economic policy looms…particularly on the Bush era tax cuts, not lying back as he's done, but speaking directly to the nation with facts, with stories of working America, with judgments like Mr. Stockman's, with common sense appeals to fairness. He needs to present and present again the numbers that show we are becoming an increasingly unjust and stratified society – and it is not waging class warfare to say so.