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September 7, 2009

The furor sparked by President Obama’s decision to address the nation’s students tomorrow has surprised and frightened me.   It seems as if some people in our society would rather expose our kids to explicit images of poverty, exploitation, humiliation, and outright rejection — and I am only talking about what they see on American Idol — than suggest they should listen to a positive message about the rewards of taking personal responsibility for their learning.

What has our country come to when the messenger becomes more important than the message?  Even before they knew what he would be speaking about, the president’s conservative opponents were suggesting that exposing our nation’s young people to his message was akin to subjecting them to brainwashing, as if that wasn’t already a standard part of the American primary and secondary school curriculum.  After all, isn’t this where we indoctrinate our future leaders to believe in the myth of American exceptionalism?

On the up side, the current economic situation has convinced people that we are at a crossroads as a nation.  But the decisions before us are not about resources and finances, they are about morals.  Among the lessons we should be learning from the current situation is a truly important one placed in stark relief by the current episode: There is an overwhelming need for each of us to take personal responsibility for our actions while supporting those around use who are making sacrifices to secure for us better futures both individually and collectively.

We have a president whose personal story truly embodies the American dream.  Born into a mixed-race family, abandoned by his father at a tender age, raised by a single-mother and loving grandparents he overcame adversity, youthful indiscretions, and the usual teenage distractions to succeed academically despite the odds stacked against him.  He abandoned a high-paying position as a corporate lawyer to become an advocate and organizer for the less fortunate in his community.  This story should serve as an inspiration to young people, many of whom confront the same difficulties President Obama faced and worse.

However tempting it may be to condemn the president’s policies for one reason or another, as people on both ends of the political spectrum have found cause to do, we cannot afford to suggest, as we have with so many of his predecessors, that he somehow embodies evil incarnate.  Whatever shortcomings he may have as the nation’s chief executive, he deserves our respect, and our children would do well to admire if not emulate his example of perseverance.

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