Namely, his secretary of education.
It is a proposition the president signed on to two years ago. But it hasn’t been discussed much since then. Not nearly enough, in fact.
It was on Oct. 12, 2010, in an arena not usually associated with policysetting that Obama was asked to consider a new way of looking at U.S. education policy priorities. The president was performing like the ringmaster in a one-ring circus at a town hall webcast at The George Washington University, just weeks before the midterm election.
Obama called on a young woman in the front row, Francesca Yabraian from Texas, who is now a career employee at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and who that day asked a question you’d expect to hear at a think tank symposium, not a campaign event.
“Mr. President, you have pointed out that U.S. students have fallen from the top 20 nations in math and science and test scores — and jobs and contracts are going overseas,” Yabraian began. “You’ve called education a national priority. But do you think it is time to label education funding a national security priority?”
It was a question and proposition Obama clearly hadn’t anticipated.
“I think it’s a national security priority,” he began; he had that furrowed-brow look he gets when he knows it’s time to be thinking on his feet. The more he thought, the more he warmed to the proposition.
“Look, there has never been a nation on earth that lost its economic edge and maintained its military edge,” Obama said. “And the reason we have the most effective military on earth, in the history of the world, is first and foremost because we have unbelievable men and women in uniform who make sacrifices on our behalf every single day.
“But the second reason is that we’ve had the biggest economy in the world that can support this incredible armed force that we have. And if we start falling behind economically, we will start falling behind from a national security perspective — there’s no doubt about it. And the single-most important determinant of how we do economically is going to be the skills of our workforce. And you’re exactly right. We used to be at the top of the heap when it came to math and science education; we are now 21st and 25th, respectively, in science and math. We used to be number one in the proportion of college graduates in the world. We’re now ranked around ninth. Other countries are making huge investments.
“China is doubling, tripling, quadrupling the number of college graduates it is generating. It is putting huge resources into it, because they understand that unless they want to build low-wage manufacturing plants for the duration of the 21st century, they’ve got to start moving up the value chain in the economy. They’ve got to start producing more engineers and scientists. India understands that. Germany has long understood that. And yet, here we are, losing that first-place position. That is unacceptable. So here’s the thing. We know what works. There are kids out there who are doing great, even from the most disadvantaged backgrounds in the poorest neighborhoods, still producing outstanding results.”
Obama went on to the need for “great teachers” and measured progress. The more he got into his education spiel, the further he got from the proposition he’d embraced: In a world made small by its global economy, education must now be a national security priority.
Hopefully, Obama will soon announce that his excellent Education Secretary Arne Duncan will be staying for another four years. Duncan is not one who seeks to solve our education problems by just throwing money at them. But he knows the security of our coming generations depends upon us spending wisely, and sufficiently, now.
As Official Washington is just weeks away from another of its self-inflicted deadline crises about the debt ceiling and budget cutting, we must never again forget the reality that earnest young questioner brought to the president’s attention, and ours, two years ago.
Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.