WASHINGTON — Though it inspired controversy over the last week, President Obama's back-to-school address to America's students Tuesday ended up being decidedly motivational rather than political -- and even won praise from some Republicans.
Speaking to students in a nationwide broadcast from a suburban Virginia high school, the Democratic president urged children to rise above their mistakes and challenges to succeed in school, offering himself as an example of "a goof-off" who went on to make good.
"You can't drop out of school and just drop into a good job," Obama said. "You've got to work for it and train for it and learn for it."
After the speech, Republican former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia said the country would be "much better off" if Obama could replicate its tone when he addresses Congress today. A conservative Republican Senate candidate in Pennsylvania applauded the address as "inspiring" and "moving."
Even the president's sharpest critic on the broadcast joined the chorus of approval, although he suggested that criticism may have shaped the event.
"My kids watched it, and I thought it was appropriate," Florida Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer said. "The White House responded to the concerns of parents and educators across this country."
White House officials were not sure how many schools had shown the speech, broadcast on CNN and C-Span as well as via live podcast.
Officials in a handful of districts across the country had said they would not show the speech in class.
The dispute erupted last week over materials the Department of Education had put together for teachers, suggesting a classroom activity in which students would be asked to think of ways they could help the president meet his goals.
Greer issued a statement condemning Obama's "socialist ideology," and he and others took to the airwaves with complaints that such classroom activities amounted to propaganda. The discussion dominated cable and talk radio shows for days.
Before the speech, the administration revised the materials to instead suggest that students set their own educational goals. The White House also posted an advance text of the speech online.
By the time Obama arrived at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Va., on Tuesday morning, some critics were already complimenting the address.
At a question-and-answer session with a small group of Wakefield ninth-graders, one student told Obama that his parents were divorced, and asked the president how his life might have been different if his father had been around as he was growing up.
The absence of his father, Obama said, "in some ways forced me to grow up faster."
"It meant that I made more mistakes because I didn't have somebody to tell me, here's how you do this or here's how you do that," he said.
"But on the other hand, I had to, I think, raise myself a little bit more. I had to be more supportive of my mother because I knew how hard she was working. And so, in some ways, maybe it made me stronger over time, just like it may be making you stronger over time."
Afterward, the president went to a gymnasium filled with hundreds of students, faculty members and elected officials, where he talked to a nationwide audience about his childhood, the challenges he faced and the mistakes he made.
"Now I know it's not always easy to do well in school," he said. "I know a lot of you have challenges in your lives right now that can make it hard to focus on your schoolwork."
With his father gone and his mother struggling to pay the bills, he said, he was sometimes lonely and felt as if he didn't fit in.
"So I wasn't always as focused as I should have been," said Obama, who in his autobiography confessed to experimenting with drugs. "I did some things I'm not proud of and got in more trouble than I should have. And my life could have easily taken a turn for the worse."
But he made the most of his opportunities, he said, and he asked students to do the same.
"The president's emphasis on responsibility and the personal stories about his own education are exactly the kind of inspiring messages our children need to hear from our country's leaders," said Pat Toomey, the conservative Republican running for Senate in Pennsylvania.