President Obama's Tuesday address on education reform includes two elements that just a few years ago would have been considered anathema to teachers unions -- strong support for charter schools and a thumbs-up for merit pay.
The question is whether the president is committed to enforcing these sort of changes at the local level (New York City has become something of a prototype for these reforms) -- or whether this is just window dressing for the significant increase in federal funding for education that exists in the administration's 2010 budget?
A related but no less important thought is trying to figure out what model Obama is following as he develops this overt challenge to part of his base. Is it something of a political move -- such as Bill Clinton's "Sister Souljah" moment where he dissed Jesse Jackson during the '92 campaign, primarily to send a signal to moderate white voters? Or is this an example of the more meaningful "Richard Nixon-goes-to-China," a 1972 diplomatic breakthrough that completely changed the world's relationship with a rising power (and placed more pressure on the other major Communist one)?
Obviously, the domestic aspect of Obama's rhetoric makes the most direct comparison with Clinton's "Sister Souljah" moment. But, the result of that was largely political and symbolic. That's not to say that it didn't have some long-lasting impact -- not the least of which is that it may have paved the way for the eventual election of Barack Obama.
Seriously: By stiff-arming Jesse Jackson -- at the African American leader's own conference, nonetheless -- Bill Clinton helped marginalize him: There would be no replay of those awkward moments in 1988, where Michel Dukakis had to deal with never-ending questions like, "What does Jesse want?" Instead, Clinton showed that he wasn't afraid of Jackson -- and could reach out to the black community in his own manner.
Then, in 1996, Clinton signed welfare reform -- taking off the table what had been a salient campaign issue for Republicans. The combination of that and the drop in crime in the mid- to late-'90s took those two contentious issues -- both of which could be proxies for dealing with race -- off the public policy table.
Jackson hasn't really been the same ever since -- in terms of commanding a high-profile national role in the Democratic Party. And, there is now a generation of Obama-type black politicians -- who can appeal to both black and white voters.
Nixon's task in dealing with his base was even harder. Nixon made his bones in the Republican Party as a hard-core anti-Communist. But, of course, that's why he had much more credibility in making such a dramatic overture. Thus giving rise to the phrase, "only Nixon could go to China." Obama is by no means the only Democrat who could make the speech he gave on Tuesday.
Charter schools are much more part of accepted education reform today than they were 10 or 15 years ago. But, Obama is still the first Democratic president to start talking charters from Day One. That's symbolically important. His Education Secretary Arne Duncan has a record of pushing accountability reforms in Chicago. He doubled the size of the cap on charter schools in Chicago. The fact that the president declared Tuesday that there shouldn't be any caps at all is an encouraging sign.
Ultimately, one has to see how far President Obama and his education bureaucracy will go to the mat on reforms. That will determine whether this is just a rhetorical gesture that may help the president in the short term -- or a truly bold maneuver that leaves ripples in public education for decades.
Robert A. George is a New York writer. He blogs at Ragged Thots.