Cross the unions: Yes he can?

Liam Julian

It is not per se wrong to enjoy watching movie star Scarlett Johansson sing breathily about change in America. Millions have, in fact. They've logged on to YouTube and viewed the "Yes We Can" video, in which a divided screen shows Barack Obama on one side, giving a campaign speech while, on the other, actors and musicians sing the words the Illinois senator speaks.

The whole thing is all very uplifting and nice but it undeniably falls into the "fluff" category in which more than a few pundits are beginning to classify Obama's talks. David Brooks writes in his New York Times column, "If that video doesn't creep out normal working-class voters, then nothing will." Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, notes, "It is not ‘the politics of fear' to remind Obama's legions of the blissful that, while they are watching Scarlett Johansson sway to the beat ... people are making plans to blow them to bits. (Yes, they can.)"

Obama is on a ten-state primary contest winning streak. Now the press wonders: Where's the beef?

Here's some. Obama was asked last week by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel what he thinks about the city's high-visibility school-choice programs, including its voucher system. "I think we should foster competition within the public school system with charters and anything that works we should try to scale up and replicate," he said. Another snippet: "When Milwaukee initiated the school voucher plan, I thought that at least there was an experiment that would allow us to use that as a test case.... If there was any argument for vouchers, it was 'Alright, let's see if this experiment works.' and if it does, then whatever my preconceptions, my attitude is you do what works for the kids."

That's remarkably substantive stuff coming from a Democratic presidential candidate competing in a rough primary race. Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, told the New York Sun that Obama's was "a different kind of answer than most of us are used to hearing from politicians."

Asked the same question, Senator Hillary Clinton gave a more predictable response. She questioned the constitutionality of school-choice programs and added that,  if vouchers were widespread,  government would be hard-pressed to deny funding to, for example, a "school of the Jihad." She's been making this point for some time. In February 2006, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, she "ranted that if a school voucher program paid for students to attend a Catholic school, it will also have to issue vouchers for a ‘school of the church of the white supremacist' or a ‘school of the Jihad.'"

Clinton purports to oppose empty rhetoric and embrace detail-oriented policy, which makes her fear mongering about Klan klassrooms especially egregious. When compared to Obama's considered response, Clinton's appears trite.

But Clinton is running for president, too; she mustn't deviate very far from AFT doctrine and of course she knows that the National Education Association has yet to endorse a candidate. According to an NEA press release from this month (modestly titled "Valuable NEA Political Endorsement Remains Up For Grabs"), "NEA is uniquely poised to play a major role in either campaign. Public school teachers have been near the top of the list of America's most admired spokespersons for decades, and according to the Harris polling firm, teachers' grades among the nation's ‘most admired professions' have improved by an average of 23 percentage points over the past 15 years."

NEA President Reg Weaver, who leads this image machine, said last week that he will seek from Obama an assurance that the Illinois senator opposes school vouchers. Up to now, the press has largely ignored Obama's heretical comments about school choice, but if he bucks the teachers' unions yet again, perhaps the newspaper columnists who crave substance will sit up and take notice.

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