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Obama's Olive Branch to GOP: If You Ever Have an Idea, Let Me Know

So the 2010 election is in the books. There were historic Republican gains in the state legislatures, governorships, and the House. The GOP picked up more than 675 seats in state legislatures and won control of 19 legislative chambers. Tuesday saw more modest gains in the Senate, where Republicans paid a price for nominating Palin-backed mediocrities like Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell. Top to bottom, a huge setback for the Democrats—bigger than 1994 or the post-Watergate results of 1974.

And now we're being treated to the mandatory post-election prattle about finding common ground—with our earnest Secretary of Education and any number of edu-shills suggesting that education will be high on that agenda. I find myself wondering whether these folks paid attention to the campaign or President Obama's post-election press conference.

First, let's recall that the 80+ new House Republicans didn't come to D.C. to strengthen educational accountability or promote charter schooling—their campaigns weren't fueled by policy wonkdom, but by the simpler, bedrock conviction that Washington is doing and spending too much. Policy wonks can praise the administration's ESEA blueprint until they're blue in the face, but I'm not sure that'll much impress the new Republicans.

The most interesting development in the last week, though, was Obama's day-after press conference. He seemed determined to live up to a caricature of himself as supercilious and tone-deaf—and to throw cold water on serious hopes of finding common ground.

Early on, Obama told reporter Savannah Guthrie, "I think that what I think is absolutely true is voters are not satisfied with the outcomes. If right now we had 5 percent unemployment instead of 9.6 percent unemployment, then people would have more confidence in those policy choices. The fact is, is that for most folks, proof of whether they work or not is has the economy gotten back to where it needs to be." I love this. Obama's view seems to be that people don't care about policies or can't judge them. Apparently, he thinks they'll embrace just about anything if unemployment is low (a line that other Democratic leaders echoed over the weekend), but become irrational when it tops 9 percent. It's not often that one hears a President straightforwardly explain his view that Americans are ignorant sheep.

The President's stance doesn't offer much common ground for bipartisan negotiations, because it suggests that the President—in his heart of hearts—doesn't really believe that last Tuesday's results represent anything more than incoherent frustration. Obama's rationale also doesn't make clear why the President thought his 2008 victory represented a mandate—and not simply economic frustration.

I also liked the way Obama depicted himself as the big-brained arbiter who would let the Republicans know if they stumbled upon any good ideas in the next two years. The President explained, "My job is to make sure that I'm looking at all ideas that are on the table. When it comes to job creation, if Republicans have good ideas for job growth that can drive down the unemployment rate, and we haven't thought of them, we haven't looked at them but we think they have a chance of working, we want to try some."

Of course, the President has also made it abundantly clear that he views conservative arguments that federal leadership may do more harm than good as nothing more than politically-inspired demagoguery, which means the only legitimate ideas Republicans can put forward are those that comport with Obama's agenda and notion of "progress." As the President explained, "I think that over the last two years, we have made a series of very tough decisions, but decisions that were right... [and Americans don't want us to] relitigate arguments that we had over the last two years."

So, where is there common ground? Obama said that both parties could agree on "making sure that our children are the best educated in the world," asserted that we cannot expect to find answers to our challenges "in any one particular philosophy or ideology," and that "no person, no party, has a monopoly on wisdom." Yet, this was the same leader who disparaged Republicans on the campaign trail as irresponsible, who asserted that none of their ideas on health care were serious, and whose administration has dismissed criticisms of the stimulus as simple-minded and uninformed.

Asked about spending and Republican pledges to reduce federal outlays, Obama said, "I want to make sure that we're not cutting into education that is going to help define whether or not we can compete around the world. I don't think we should be cutting back on research and development." Reporter Chip Reid observed, "But most of those things that you just called investments they call wasteful spending and they say it's dead on arrival." Obama's response: "Well, what is absolutely true is, is that without any Republican support on anything, then it's going to be hard to get things done. But I'm not going to anticipate that they're not going to support anything." As best I can tell, the President's take is that the voters didn't really mean it on Tuesday, that the Republicans don't mean what they say, and, anyway, he's already collected and sorted through the good ideas. So compromise is really just Republicans learning to be responsible grown-ups. Or, as the President said in explaining why he doesn't think Republican criticisms of health care reform are serious: it's time to shift "from campaigning [to] governing" so "that we can continue to make some progress."

Honestly, given this kind of leadership, it's easy to see how we've wound up with a Department of Education that regards any criticism of its pet programs as uniformed and evidence of hostility. When Obama explains that he's already considered all the "good" ideas and acted as any sensible person would, it's easy to see how ED's architects of Race to the Top, i3, "gainful employment," and the rest may imagine that any criticism of program design or execution reveal only ignorance or willful malice.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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