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Obama Has Message Of Hard Work for Students

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

NOAH ADAMS, host:

And I'm Noah Adams.

President Obama delivered his back to school speech today. He told children to study hard, stay in school, pursue their passions and wash their hands. It was a pep talk, not the political speech that some conservatives had predicted and protested.

BLOCK: We're going to hear from a principal, from some students and from presidents past, who also addressed schoolchildren nationwide.

First, here's NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON: After the president finished speaking at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia today, it was hard to remember what all the fuss was about. Here's some of the president's advice.

President BARACK OBAMA: I'm calling on each of you to set your own goals for your education and do everything you can to meet them. Your goal can be something as simple as doing all your homework, paying attention in class or spending some time each day reading a book.

LIASSON: Inspiring perhaps, but not very controversial. And not unlike the politically innocuous study hard, stay in school messages of previous presidents. Of course, those messages were subject to political sniping as well. Back in 1991, when George H. W. Bush gave a similar speech, Democrats called it political advertising.

This time, conservatives protested that Mr. Obama would use the occasion to indoctrinate children with a socialist agenda. And the controversy got a boost from a lesson plan provided by the Department of Education, suggesting children write letters about how they could help the president. Once that suggestion was dropped, one outspoken critic, Florida state Republican Party Chair Jim Greer, had to change his tune. He told CNN today, he'd let his kids watch the speech after all.

Mr. JIM GREER (Chairman, Republican Party of Florida): So after reading the text, seeing the Department of Education have told teachers they are not to lead students in the direction that they would've a week ago, my kids will be watching the president's speech, as all - I hope all kids will.

LIASSON: Before the speech, the president answered questions from a small group of ninth graders who wanted to know how his life had changed.

Pres. OBAMA: These days, either people are waving and really happy to see me or they're booing me, saying…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Pres. OBAMA: …you know, but nobody just kind of interacts with you in a normal way.

LIASSON: It was an apt description of the polarized environment the president has found as he tries to push his program through Congress. Mr. Obama ran as a consensus seeker, someone who could rise above petty divisions, but he's learned how difficult being post-partisan can be, even when the subject is a speech to schoolchildren.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.