All Hat, Hidden Cattle

Edspresso asked a few folks to comment on the President’s State of the Union speech, here’s my take:

What a letdown. People used to complain that President Clinton’s State of the Union speeches were laundry lists, but at least when there was a pre-speech build up that he was going to talk about education he then, you know, talked about education. The fact that President Bush’s State of the Union clearly said he wanted No Child reauthorized is significant, as is the placement of education at the top of the speech. But beyond that, not a whole lot in Tuesday night’s speech.

When it comes to education policy the basic dilemma of the Bush Administration is this: It’s the one high profile issue where, even if you don’t agree with the President, his policies are more or less defensible. Yet at the same time, and despite its alleged importance to voters, nothing President Bush can do on education will salvage his presidency at this point. His big bet has been made elsewhere and he has other political imperatives.

That dilemma was on full display Tuesday night. First, the President tried to remind people that there are other issues besides the war, and that he’s even got ideas on some of them. But that’s an awfully tough sell. Hell, I care about education, obviously, and domestic policy more generally as well, and still I was more interested in what he had to say on the non-domestic front. So, I can’t imagine that against the backdrop of the ongoing carnage in Iraq the average American cares that President Bush is trying to force some action on what happens to schools in year five of program improvement under No Child Left Behind.

But the President didn’t help himself either. When he did talk about education, the President’s dilemma seems to have paralyzed him because rhetorically he pulled his punches. While the paper the White House released in advance* of the speech had the school choice crowd all aflutter, the speech itself sidestepped the voucher issue. All Bush basically said was, “We can lift student achievement even higher by giving local leaders flexibility to turn around failing schools and by giving families with children stuck in failing schools the right to choose something better.” Hardly a rising call to arms for the choiceniks.

In fairness, there is a lot in the White House paper besides choice, including some very good ideas. And granted he wasn’t giving a speech to an education audience. But he would have been better served by more specificity and more forcefulness. Best I could tell in the spin afterwards, education, the president’s strongest domestic suit, garnered hardly any attention. In other words, unless the entire gambit was to send a signal to a few members of Congress that he’s serious about reauthorizing No Child Left Behind – something he did already anyway – then this speech didn’t serve its intended purpose or really any purpose at all on education. As a result, it’s a missed opportunity to communicate directly with the American people on a key issue and cut through special interest noise.

We’ll have to see what happens going forward but Bush knows he can’t have both bipartisanship, which this speech was ostensibly all about, and a big push for vouchers in federal policy. And he can’t have a timid approach to No Child reauthorization, the politics are just too tough. So before long there are some tough decisions to make. But without a deft political touch and some engagement with the American people at the level of specifics, it’s hard to see a No Child Left Behind deal that meets the President’s goal of not backsliding on reform.

If the President is going to challenge Congress to pass No Child Left Behind, and ask Chairman Kennedy and Chairman Miller to shepherd a reformist bill through their committees and the Congress, then he needs to provide some cover by using the megaphone of the presidency to set the table and lay out the stakes. He didn’t do that Tuesday night and he won’t have too many more chances like that.

*More on those as they’re fleshed out.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.