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Obama's New Education Proposal: Change, or Changed Subject?

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President Barack Obama speaks during a town hall meeting at Binghamton University during his two-day bus tour.
President Barack Obama speaks during a town hall meeting at Binghamton University during his two-day bus tour.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

It's been a strange week in the history of Barack Obama's presidency. On Sunday, the NSA scandal exploded in one of the clumsiest political gaffes in recent memory, with British authorities (with American foreknowledge) snatching up Glenn Greenwald's Brazilian partner David Miranda and preposterously detaining him at an airport for nine hours, citing a subsection of the West's increasingly dystopian, Matrix-like anti-terrorism laws.

Take an Inside Look at President Obama's First Term

By Tuesday, shameless pro-administration flacks like Jeffrey Toobin were going on TV and doing the dreary work of dirtying up Miranda in the press, comparing him to a drug mule and blasting critics who think the whole freedom-of-the-press thing confers "magic immunity sauce." Add in the indefensible 35-year sentence for Chelsea Manning, and there were progressives following this revolting national-security story a few days ago who probably found themselves pining for the civil liberties panacea that was the Bush administration.

Think about it: on Monday and Tuesday, the Democratic Party was the face of a repressive new global security state which improbably had forced Vladimir Putin's Russia into the role of earth's symbolic defender of individual liberty, and in a mirroring irony had turned journalists like Greenwald into the dissidenti of our age, with Brazil the new Vermont and Greenwald's Guardian articles the new samizdat.

But now it's Friday, and what do we see in the news? Lots and lots of coverage of the President's suddenly-urgent new road show around America's college campuses, where he's stumping for his "bold" new plan to reduce tuition costs. Obama on Monday and Tuesday was Darth Vader; today, he's being feted in the New York Times for his ostentatiously progressive-sounding new plan to help the student demographic. From the Times editorial board this morning:

President Obama has been accused of promoting small-ball ideas in his second term, but the proposal he unveiled on Thursday is a big one: using sharp federal pressure to make college more affordable, potentially opening the gates of higher education to more families scared off by rising tuitions. While there are questions to be answered about his plan, his approach – tying federal student aid to the value of individual colleges – is a bold and important way to leverage the government's power and get Washington off the sidelines.

The Times should have looked more closely at the fine print of Obama's proposal, which in theory would create a government rating system that would tie student aid to performance (by both students and universities). The key number in it is a date. This is from Time:

Obama will also ask Congress to tie those ratings to federal student aid by 2018. . .

One friend on the Hill laughingly called it "complete bullshit" and stressed the loose time frame, noting that we won’t even know what the rating system looks like until 2015, and then nothing actually happens until 2018. Which, conveniently, is two years after the President leaves office.

“The president's current ‘Bus Tour’ is just another, agonizing, frustrating whitewash, to be blunt,” is how Alan Collinge of studentloanjustice.org, who was a key source in a feature we ran on this very topic (skyrocketing college costs) just last week. Collinge too was unimpressed by the “feckless” proposal that might “eventually” be implemented. “The schools have come up against far stronger attempts to tie school performance to aid,” he said, “and they have reduced them to soft oatmeal.”

The problem with this proposal, which is the problem with many of this President's proposals and speeches, is that you just never know. The plan he and his people come up with could, at least in theory, turn into something that significantly changes the landscape and helps reduce college costs. He could turn out to be right on this thing. But we most likely won't have a hint one way or another until next year at least, and we apparently won't know for sure until well into the second year of the Cory Booker or Ted Cruz presidency.

In the meantime, most mainstream critics will hold their tongues and won't blast Obama's road show as a transparent change-the-subject gambit designed to solidify his highly disillusioned base ahead of an approaching fiscal showdown. Few have even gone as far as Time did in making careful note of this crucial context:

The roll-out comes in the midst of a weeks-long economic push by the President focused on improving the stability of the middle class. Obama is mounting a public relations effort that builds on his 2012 campaign themes in advance of a fiscal showdown with congressional Republicans this fall over the budget and the debt limit. The White House is seeking to drive up the President's underwater poll numbers before that confrontation.

That this "bus tour" is political groundwork for the upcoming fiscal battle was pretty clear from Obama's speech at the University of Buffalo earlier this week, which incidentally got rave reviews inside the Beltway. In his opening remarks, the President set the tone for his education proposal by talking about the general challenge of turning around the fucked/dead manufacturing economy (it can't be a coincidence that they picked towns like Buffalo and Scranton to present this education plan):

THE PRESIDENT: So reversing this trend should be, must be, Washington's highest priority.  It's my highest priority.  (Applause.)  I've got to say it's not always Washington's highest priority.  Because rather than keeping focus on a growing economy that creates good middle-class jobs, we've seen a faction of Republicans in Congress suggest that maybe America shouldn't pay its bills that have already been run up, that we shut down government if they can't shut down Obamacare.

AUDIENCE:  Booo. . .

Within a day after the President released his proposal, White House press people were emphasizing to reporters that some Republicans were already complaining about rating-system plan to control costs and blasting it as more socialism. The Times editorial dutifully summed up the administration's talking points about the Republican response:

Many of these ideas – in particular, tying financial aid to performance – need Congressional approval, meaning instant opposition from Republicans who reject anything Mr. Obama wants. Already, several prominent Republicans were expressing predictable complaints about government meddling and even the slippery slope toward "federal price controls." But Mr. Obama is absolutely right to make increased college access a high administration priority. . .

This is how you do politics in this country. You're taking water over some monstrous screw-up (and my God, what have they been thinking with this Greenwald/Miranda/NSA business?), so you work fast to 1) change the subject, and 2) make sure the other party is tossed on the wrong side of whatever new set of goalposts you've just put up.

Barack Obama is so frustrating. He can give quite a speech. He says just enough of the right things to give pause, and sometimes genuinely seems to be in touch with the pain of the vanishing middle class. He has the appearance, on occasion, of the politician of your dreams – intelligent, forward-thinking, even-keeled, just. You want to believe in him, you really do.

But just taking this week for instance, there's just no way around the math. This new education plan may or may not turn into something five years from now. But right now, it's all words.

What's not words is that the White House has been engaged all summer in a lunatic defense of a vast and apparently illegal domestic espionage program and tossed a young soldier in prison for three decades for exposing war crimes and torture. What's also not words is that in a matter of months, not years, the President is going to need his base shored up and his poll numbers elevated to win what promises to be yet another drawn-out battle over the budget.

Does that mean the education proposal is insincere? That Obama will drop it once the NSA business cools down, or after the Democrats win the fiscal debate in congress? No, it doesn't automatically mean that. But it is what it is. This President has a gift for talking about the future, but his record on right now is beginning to suck enough that you have to wonder.

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Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. He’s the author of five books and a winner of the National Magazine Award for commentary. Please direct all media requests to taibbimedia@yahoo.com.

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