Friday, November 28, 2008

He's Not Even President Yet...

Is it just me, or with a full two months until President-elect Obama will take the oath of office as our nation's 44th President, is everyone and their political pundit mother questioning Barack Obama as though he is already our chief executive?

To be sure, a lot of the scrutiny Obama has received is rooted in key decisions that he is in the process of making regarding his plan to address our struggling economy--decisions such as the makeup of his team of economic advisors, the details of his stimulus plan, his level of support for an auto-maker industry bailout, and so on. And other sources of scrutiny are timely simply because they concern intriguing cabinet level selections, with Senator Hillary Clinton headlining the list.

But Mr. Obama is already drawing what can best be termed "challenges" from observers as to his leadership ability and reform views on a wide variety of less prominent issues as well--and education is a terrific example of this. Two pieces just this past week--one in Newsweek and another in the Wall Street Journal--call out Mr. Obama and whether he will be able to deliver on his promises of the change we need, changes that are particularly vital in school reform.

Newsweek questions whether Senator Obama's purported commitment to change in education will actually ring true through the lens of recent developments in D.C. Public Schools, where controversial Chancellor of Schools Michelle Rhee has threatened to unilaterally revoke teacher tenure in exchange for a merit pay system that would reward the district's best teachers salaries approaching $130,000--where "best" is judged by how much students improve in learning. In the Wall Street Journal, Stanford Professor Terry Moe questions more broadly whether Mr. Obama will have the political gumption needed to take on teachers unions to make changes that many in the school reform arena think are crucial: expanding school choice, strengthening school accountability, and reassessing teacher pay in exactly the kind of ways contemplated by Michelle Rhee.

Why the attention and, arguably, premature concern over Mr. Obama's ability to deliver reform in education when he becomes president? I suppose part of it owes to a desperately hungry media news cycle that has had a year's worth of Obama-watching and that is loath to give it up now that the election season is over (But wait! Media! What if we entered President Obama in this hotly-contested, closely-watched, and rife-with-implications electoral race!) And another part of it has to do with the de facto nature of a constitutional conundrum concerning where power actually rests during lame-duck periods like the one we are in now.

But another source of the unrest and concern over Mr. Obama's ability to lead has to do with the nature of the electoral coalition he put together and that propelled him to the White House. It's no surprise that any time a candidate receives more than 66 million popular votes that not all of those voters will agree with each other on big issues, but in education there is a divide, alluded to in the WSJ op-ed that has unique implications: a good percentage of the Democratic base plays by the old playbook of teacher-union driven reform models, while many others ask more exclusively, what is best for school children?

Here's where a recent development kicks in: President-elect Obama tabbed a pro-union, old-school reform thinker, Linda Darling-Hammond, to be the leader of his education policy transition team, drawing concerns from progressives in the newer camp of school reform. The same thing has happened, in some eyes, in the economic team put together by the Obama leadership, a team that has a lot of old-school ties to the Clinton years (not to mention Mrs. Clinton herself at State).

What does it all mean? We're still two months away from President Obama's first day in office, but already the second-guessing is starting. The second-guessing, however, does little good (other than to give me something to blog about). Better for us, as a nation and punditry, to ease off on the political commentary a bit and wait until the President-elect actually gets into office and develops a record on these very issues. Once that happens, any and every move and decision made by the administration will be fair game.

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