Obama Gives NEA The 'Velvet Snub'

(Velvet Snub - noun, from the Latin phrase velvetus snubus - When a politician addresses a powerful special interest group - preferably from a remote location - and stands his ground, even when doing so results in boo's and hiss' from what would otherwise be an adoring crowd.)

The mission for Sen. Barack Obama on Saturday was clear: graciously accept the (rather weak, by historical standards) endorsement of the National Education Association, point out where he and the union are in agreement on education issues, and then unapologetically point out the areas where the union (which was not much help to Obama on the campaign trail for the Democratic nomination, and in many cases, worked against him) and he do not agree.

What we saw yesterday was a candidate who is trying to live up to his image as an agent of change, one who won't be forced to play by the old rules, and one who is refreshingly willing to point out the extent of the very big problems he is trying to solve. I think he pretty much nailed it. Of course, that doesn't always go over so well with the NEA crowd. You can read USA Today reporter Greg Toppo's dispatch here.

Under the old rules, the presidential candidate is supposed to stop by to accept the union's endorsement in person. (And while Reg Weaver may have acted like he didn't mind that Obama beamed in his remarks from a hope-to-be-flipped red state, Weaver made it pretty clear in 2004 that John Kerry had committed a cardinal sin by similarly selecting to be anyplace but the NEA convention on speech day.)

So Obama did what he needed. If he didn't somehow address the delegates he would have appeared ungrateful, unreasonable (teachers ARE the most important ingredient in education, most of us believe), and politically aloof. But he also risked getting sucked into a pander-spiral, where you end up saying things that make you look like the same-old, same-old - the kind of Democrat who blindly presides over massive systemic educational failure because it keeps the unions happy. The kind of Democrat who sides with the "No We Can't" camp rather than the "Yes We Can" camp. You get the drift.

Very important that Obama went into the lion's den and re-asserted his support for NEA non-favorites like charter schools, incentive pay, and merit pay. Very important that he sobered up the celebration by pointing out that our nation's drop-out rates are the highest of any industrialized nation, and that six million students are reading below grade level.

Mike Antonucci, whom I first met a decade ago when I was covering the NEA Representative Assembly in New Orleans, has gavel-to-gavel coverage (as usual) of the proceedings, as well as some insight as to why the NEA wasn't all that pleased with one of Senator Obama's NCLB bills. 

The Hill's Jackie Kucinich has it here. The UPI version is here.