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Right wing’s schoolyard taunt: Obama’s a socialist and so's your mama

September 4, 2009 |  8:05 am

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Just when you thought the culture wars were ancient history comes this news bulletin: Conservatives are up in arms over President Obama’s planned speech to schoolchildren Tuesday, the day millions of Americans return to work and school after the Labor Day holiday, touting the value of education.

After a summer of stoking controversy over nonexistent death panels in healthcare plans, critics on the right are now charging that the White House -- which plans to broadcast the speech live on the White House website and over C-SPAN -- is trying to indoctrinate their innocents on issues like healthcare reform and federal spending. Thanks to conservative talk radio and the right-wing blogosphere, Obama’s speech to children has been turned into a lighting rod for socialism.

 “As far as I am concerned, this is not civics education -- it gives the appearance of creating a cult of personality,” said Oklahoma state Sen. Steve Russell. “This is something you’d expect to see in North Korea or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.”

Even the chairman of a state Republican Party, Jim Greer in Florida, has joined the fray, warning that Obama is trying to "indoctrinate America's children to his socialist agenda."

With rumors spreading faster than a California wildfire, school districts in six states -- Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin -- have opted out and will not show the speech. Others are mulling it over.

To be fair, the Education Department in Washington may have helped stoke the controversy by suggesting in a lesson plan to teachers that, as part of the presidential moment, they could ask students to write letters to themselves about “what they can do to help the president.” That language has now been replaced with the injunction to write about “how they can achieve their short-term and long-term goals.”

Still, this faux controversy has stirred such a fuss that the White House is now planning to release the president’s remarks Monday -- one day before Obama’s back-to-school address -- so parents and teachers can read it for themselves to determine whether they want to subject their children to his motherhood-and-apple-pie homilies.

There’s a lot of presidential precedence for this sort of address -- and political backlash.

The first President Bush, a Republican, talked to children via teleconference about the need not to do drugs. That was back in 1991. At the time, Democrats howled that he was using the children to make a campaign commercial.

The second President Bush was, memorably, in a classroom talking to students about the importance of education when he was told of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Obama, with First Lady Michelle Obama, is a fierce supporter of educational improvement. Both of them bettered their own lives by winning scholarships to the nation’s top universities.

“It’s really unfortunate that politics has been brought into this,” White House deputy Heather Higginbottom told the Associated Press. “It’s simply a plea to students to really take their learning seriously.”

-- Johanna Neuman

Photo: The Obamas at a charter school in Washington on Feb. 3. Credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press

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