The Barack Obama We Need To See More Of

It was a relatively ho-hum affair for most of President Barack Obama’s visit to North High School in Des Moines, where he briefly laid out new college affordability proposals before taking questions from the audience. With Education Secretary Arne Duncan at his side, Obama fielded a wide variety of issues from students and parents, including some touching queries like what advice is he giving to Malia as she prepares for college. The President gave the students mostly generic advice, interacted in a humorous and authentic way with them, defended and promoted some of his administration’s accomplishments, but it was, all-in-all, a pretty general presidential visit. Right up until the last question, that is.

“If you legalize free two-year college, is everyone including illegal students with a good GPA able to get this benefit?” asked Tania Montoya, a senior at North High, struggling a bit as she got through her question.

“This is an important question, and I know that this is a debate that’s been taking place amongst some of the presidential candidates,” Obama began his response.

“Trump!” yelled out several students in the crowd as he mentioned those candidates, the cries coming from a part of the audience with mostly Hispanic students, clearly upset over the Republican front-runner’s rhetoric.

Obama started out by explaining that undocumented immigrants currently can’t get that aid, but then moved his focus to the broader immigration issue.

“For young people who came here, their parents may have brought them here, they now are American kids by every other criteria except for a piece of paper,” Obama said, eliciting some strong applause and cheers from the crowd. “They may be your classmates, they may be your friends, they may be your neighbors … You know, this whole anti-immigrant sentiment that’s out there in our politics right now is contrary to who we are. Because unless you are a Native American, your family came from someplace else … don’t pretend that somehow 100 years ago the immigration process was all smooth and strict – that’s not how it worked.”

“There are a whole bunch of folks who came here from all over Europe and all throughout Asia and all throughout Central America and all – and certainly who came from Africa, who it wasn’t some orderly process where all the rules applied and everything was strict,” Obama continued. “So the notion that now, suddenly, that one generation or two generations, or even four or five generations removed, that suddenly we are treating new immigrants as if they’re the problem, when your grandparents were treated like the problem, or your great-grandparents were treated like the problem, or were considered somehow unworthy or uneducated or unwashed – no. That’s not who we are. It’s not who we are.”

It was an emotionally powerful moment in the auditorium of North High School, made even more so by the fact that the vast majority of the audience was made up of students of color, watching the first African American President defend their worth in society from the racist rhetoric that’s permeated our politics. Simply looking around at their faces, you could see the real pain and frustration many are facing in their uncertain role in America. In conversations with Starting Line afterwards, many students said they felt marginalized by what political leaders were saying, and that they appreciated Obama’s push-back.

But it was a moment that almost didn’t happen. And while Obama had plenty of good moments with the crowd yesterday, it would seem like this would be a topic he’d want to make sure he addressed, speaking to a diverse audience of high schoolers from many of the poorer neighborhoods in Des Moines. The presidential race in Iowa has driven this immigration debate, so this was the perfect venue for it.

For nearly the entirety of the forum, Obama tip-toed around potential political news or commenting on the presidential race and the wider national debate it has caused.

“I’m going to beg off this question a little bit,” he said with a laugh to one parent who asked him which 2016 presidential candidate has the best education plan. “I promise you I’m generally going to give you straight answers. On this one, I’m going to wiggle around a little bit. Right now, I’m going to try to stay out of the campaign season until it – partly because I can’t keep track of all the candidates. So I’ll wait until it’s winnowed down a little bit before I have an opinion.”

That seemed off to me. Once again, even seven years into a presidency bogged down by Republican intransience, he let golden opportunities to help shape the national debate float by him.

“I’m not really going to get into politics,” Obama said at one point in the event.

You’re not going to get into politics? You’re the President of the United States, speaking in the state that propelled you to the White House, which is currently ground zero for the discussion of what path the country should go after your administration, where countless Republicans are making calls to repeal every single thing you’ve accomplished, and where the tone for the future of American policy is being set. But oh no, hey, we wouldn’t want to do anything improper and say something that may, you know, make news or push the national political conversation. With only 16 months left in office, why upset the boat now?

To be fair, he did get in a few subtle hits at the GOP field.

“I can’t tell you who to vote for, but I can tell you who to vote against, and that is somebody who decides that teachers don’t deserve respect and decent pay,” Obama said, which could have applied to any number of Republicans running for President.

But that was the problem: it was much too subtle, too generic to impact any headlines. It’s an issue I’ve long had with this President, and something I haven’t written much about here. There’s a reason why Democrats were destroyed so badly in the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections, and have struggled in recent years to make much headway on policy (and it’s not just the media’s or Republicans’ or the Tea Party’s fault). At many important junctures in his presidency, Obama seems to have lacked the political killer instinct to shape the national debate in the way a President should.

What’s most frustrating about the situation is that the ability and skill is obviously there. It’s utterly perplexing how a man who was able to inspire a nation to believe politics could be different and vote him into office has been mostly unable to transfer that enthusiasm to support for his legislative priorities or for down-ballot candidates that are crucial to implementing his proposals. So it was refreshing to see this Obama on display again, even if for just a few minutes in Des Moines.

“When I hear folks talking as if somehow these kids are different from my kids, or less worthy in the eyes of God, that somehow they are less worthy of our respect and consideration and care, I think that’s un-American,” Obama concluded his Q&A with. “I do not believe that. I think it is wrong. And I think we should do better, because that’s how America was made: by us caring about all our kids.”

That’s a message our political discourse desperately needs right now, and one that President Obama is uniquely situated to champion. There is still plenty Obama can accomplish in the remainder of his term. And while it’s nice to give advice on college and FASFA to a room of over a thousand students, there’s a larger impact these appearances can have. And not just for the gain for those of us in the media itching for a good angle to write about. But for the real-life benefit of the kids in that audience and the millions like them all over the country, who badly need a fighter in the White House advocating for the children American society too often forgets. That’s the Barack Obama I hope we see more of in the closing year of his presidency.


by Pat Rynard
Posted 9/15/15

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