9/5/2009—Eleanor Chute reported in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette today that some school districts will not show President Barack Obama’s speech about staying in school live and others will notify parents in advance so that students can opt out of watching the speech. Gateway School District spokeswoman Cara Zanella was quoted as saying that the opt out “was fair to both sides”.
Sorry. When the President of the United States speaks to schoolchildren on a nonpartisan topic, there are no “sides”. The Presidency is a peculiar office in political life. On the one hand, the President is a partisan, party leader. On the other hand, the President is our main symbol of national unity. When the President speaks as the leader of all Americans, political opponents seethe because inevitably this adds legitimacy to his role as party leader. But, Americans usually recognize that respect for the office is a necessary element of our democracy.
If President George Bush had wanted to make this same speech about working hard and staying in school, there would have been grumbling from Democrats. But I doubt very much if any school in the nation would have opted out.
Since this speech is by all accounts actually to be about staying in school and working hard, criticism that it is political simply means that political opponents of President Obama do not wish him to be seen as the legitimate President of all Americans. This is not much different from carrying a weapon near where the President is speaking. It communicates a denial of legitimacy for the President that differs from the intense policy differences experienced by President Bush. I hated the Bush presidency, but I don’t think I saw him as not really the President. (Some Democrats did deny his legitimacy, because of Bush v. Gore).
Republicans and other Obama opponents are beginning to act like the people they profess to oppose. They are acting like people who hate America. In fact, they are acting like people who don’t believe there is such a thing as America. By refusing to treat President Obama as genuinely the President of all of us, they are threatening the democracy they claim to love.