President Obama heads to Philadelphia on Tuesday for his second "Back to School" speech, but unlike last year, this year's speech is garnering little to no national attention, instead living on the back pages of newspapers or failing to get any mentions in most media circles or leading opposition groups.
The lack of protest is a stark contrast to last year's speech, which prompted many groups to start a National "Keep Your Child at Home Day" movement for the day of the speech, and forced the White House to release the entire text of the speech in advance when some parents said it was inappropriate for the president to take up valuable school time to give a pep talk, and others even charged Obama would be doling out "socialist theories." The uproar also came about because of documents the White House released in advance that urged teachers to have a lesson plan during the speech, including having children write key ideas or phrases from the speech they would consider meaningful. The groups who opposed the speech said the lesson plan sounded like an "indoctrination" of children and pledged to keep their children at home for the day. In the end, the speech last year had no politics whatsoever, with the president urging children at Wakefield High School in Arlington, VA, to take "responsibility" for their education. Experts say it's not surprising people were more interested in last year's speech more than the one this year.
"Last year everything was a big deal. It was a new president, it was a new era. It was a new and changed everything and so, you had all these initiatives and fresh ideas and everyone got excited and now it's a year later. We've slogged through a recession and health care and continuing wars and it's harder for things to break through the clutter," says Tobe Berkovitz an Associate Professor at Boston University's College of Communication.
This year, President Obama goes to the City of Brotherly Love with less dissent but perhaps more troubles in his education initiatives. He's been pushed to defend his education plan recently over what he calls "a general resistance to change, a comfort with the status quo." In July, the president spoke to the National Urban League about his education plan, making a correlation between the unemployment rate in the country and those who did not attend universities.
"It's an economic issue when the unemployment rate for folks who've never gone to college is almost double what it is for those who have gone to college," Obama said in July. "It's an economic issue when eight in 10 new jobs will require workforce training or a higher education by the end of this decade. It's an economic issue when countries that out-educate us today are going to out-compete us tomorrow."
But if Obama is hoping to link the economy to education, he may want to re-think that plan based on how that's gone over in the past. In March, the president praised a school in Rhode Island for voluntarily firing their entire faculty due to poor performance from students. A variety of teachers unions called the Obama endorsements of the firings an "insult." In July, President Obama was not invited to a summer convention of the two national teachers' unions, a meeting he had addressed for two years when he was running for president. In addition, his Education Secretary Arne Duncan also did not attend.
Unions are typically big supporters of the Democratic Party, organizing Get Out the Vote drives, providing people for field operations and working at both the local and national level. The recent tension between the teachers unions and the White House could be indicative of an overall union problem for the president, at a time when the Democratic Party needs high-turnout for the midterm elections.
James Sherk, of the Heritage Foundation, says there may be a disagreement in strategy between Labor and the White House, but the two sides should be able to come together for the elections. "They don't like everything that Obama is doing, but they are not going to sit out the elections or put any sort of meaningful pressure on Obama to change his approach," Sherk told Fox News. "The teachers unions are active in these fall elections, have given 97% of their donations to Democrats. They are grumbling, but it has limited practical significance. They will be supporting the president where it counts."