Washington Sketch: Obama's Back-to-School Lesson

The teacher in chief's popularity was bound to fall, but maybe not enough to please the people waving signs outside.
The teacher in chief's popularity was bound to fall, but maybe not enough to please the people waving signs outside. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
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By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Eugene Delgaudio, a longtime conservative activist in Virginia, watched with pleasure last month as support for President Obama's health-care reform effort disintegrated at town hall meetings. He delighted in the forced resignation last week of a White House environmental adviser. And he has celebrated the continued failure of Obama's "socialism" to halt the loss of jobs.

So on Tuesday, Delgaudio made sure he was one of the demonstrators standing outside Arlington's Wakefield High, the scene of Obama's latest trouble: the back-to-school speech that caused a furor even before it happened, when the Education Department proposed that students write letters "about what they can do to help the president."

"If he's out there to create the impression that he's making a lot of mistakes, he's doing a good job of it," said Delgaudio, holding a banner proclaiming "Mr. President: Stay Away From Our Kids" as he waited in the drizzle for the opportunity to shout at Obama's limousine. If the past month, he went on, "is a referendum on what kind of president we have, it's going to be like Jimmy Carter, Roman numeral II, on steroids. . . . I mean, I don't know how low we can go. Is there more low than this?"

The answer: probably not. And that's a problem for Delgaudio, who, for all his passion, was one of only a dozen conservatives to brave the rain to demonstrate outside the school. It has been the summer of Obama's discontent -- but this does not necessarily mean that his presidency is already heading into its autumn.

Without question, Obama's standing has deteriorated, and quickly. A poll released last week by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that a mere 52 percent of the public approved of Obama's performance in office, down from 62 percent in April. And the drop-off was about the same among Republicans, Democrats and independents.

This cheered the small clump of demonstrators across Chesterfield Road from Wakefield High. "He's faltering," said Francis Mahoney of Arlington, holding a handwritten sign announcing "Children Serve God, Not Obama." "He doesn't have the political capital he did initially," Mahoney said. "The polls say he's going down faster than the average president."

True, but that's largely because Obama's support had been unnaturally high, as his starry-eyed followers bought into his campaign promises that he would fundamentally change the way business is done in Washington. They have inevitably been disappointed to learn that the president is not, in fact, the Messiah.

The other good news in Obama's bad news is that his problems are mostly self-inflicted: not knowing that "green jobs" czar Van Jones had blamed the government for 9/11, for example, or allowing the Education Department to solicit political help for Obama from America's schoolchildren. Compared with the worst presidential debacle of recent Augusts, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, even the failure of health-care reform is little more than a tropical depression. If the economy continues to improve, and if Obama can use Wednesday night's address to Congress to salvage pieces of the health-care proposal, he's likely to regain much of what he lost in August.

That realization tempered the celebration among the right-wingers. Even Delgaudio, though pronouncing himself reinvigorated after being "too lazy" during the first months of Obama's presidency, admitted it's premature to declare Obama's problems irreparable. "We are in a championship battle, a four-year battle," he explained.

For now, it was pleasant enough for the conservatives to know that Obama, as he talked to the students across Chesterfield Road, had been temporarily hobbled. The Wakefield speech itself was evidence: Scheduled as an address to the nation's students before it was overtaken by controversy, the talk became an exercise in banality as Obama shied from anything that could be taken as remotely political.

"Today I'm calling on each of you to set your own goals for your education and do everything you can to meet them," the neutered Obama told the students. He specifically instructed them to "show up" at school, "pay attention" to teachers and "listen to your parents."

The anodyne speech was preceded by innocuous chitchat with the students. "If you could have dinner with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?" one asked.

"I think that it might be Gandhi," Obama replied. "Now, it would probably be a really small meal. He didn't eat a lot."

Only once did Obama refer to the woes that were so delighting the conservative activists, when a student asked "how you motivate yourself to do all the work that goes along with your job."

"I'm just going to be honest with you: Some of it is just, you know, you don't want to fail, right?" Obama answered. "And so even when I'm really tired or, you know, things aren't going exactly the way I thought they would be going, or, you know, there's just a lot of problems that are landing on my desk, you know, I -- I think about all the struggles that a lot of people are going through around the country, and I say to myself, 'It's such an honor to be in this job, I can't afford to get tired.' "

As Obama talked about his fear of failure, Ruby Nicdao of Fairfax, one of the conservative protesters across the street, was holding a hand-printed sign calling Obama "First in Failure." But however fervently she wished that message to be true, Nicdao didn't yet believe it herself. "Definitely he's weakened," she said, but "I wouldn't say we're declaring victory."

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