“Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard, and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.”
So spoke the dethroned Conan O’Brien last Friday, ending his run on The Tonight Show as he joined the ranks of 15.3 million unemployed Americans. We shouldn’t feel very sorry for him: He’s getting $32.5 million in severance pay, and Fox is already chomping at the late-night bit for him.
The narrative of Conan’s demise has been bizarrely populist. Jeff Zucker, the backstabbing corporate executive, dashed Conan’s hopes of creative comedy and pandered to an older demographic with the safe bet of Jay Leno. “I’m with Coco,” hipster T-shirts proclaimed, and suddenly the multi-millionaire host of America’s oldest establishment talk show was a folk hero.
Here’s the problem: Few of these supposedly devoted Conan fans actually watched “The Tonight Show.” The show got terrible ratings, and for as many friends I’ve heard bemoaning NBC’s treachery, almost none regularly tuned in. In fact, most people I know, including myself, simply didn’t find Conan funny — his hilarious last week aside — since he left his 12:35 time slot.
The connection here with President Obama as he prepares his first State of the Union address seems like something you might find in a contrived Frank Rich column, but I’ll make it anyway. As disappointed as many young liberals were last week with Republican Scott Brown’s win in Massachusetts, few besides the die-hards of the Yale College Democrats made any effort to elect Martha Coakley. I’ll be the first to admit that I delete e-mails from Organizing for America like they’re Facebook invitations to a cappella shows.
Why? Talking heads of an older generation explain our disillusionment by pointing out Coakley’s pathetic campaign, lingering partisanship in Washington and the hard realities of steering the massive ship of state. Boy, this whole “change” thing was harder than we thought.
Sorry, cable news, but we’re not that naïve, or that stupid. We knew that massive, structural transformation of health care, energy and financial regulation would be enormously difficult, however many votes Democrats supposedly held in Congress.
Besides, anybody claiming Obama has had an unproductive first year is living on a planet called Fox News. Just to name a few accomplishments: the end of torture and secret detention facilities, the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and renewed focus on Afghanistan, a $789 billion economic stimulus that has saved or created two million jobs, the first appointment of a Latina to the Supreme Court and the extension of health insurance to four million children. And all of this for a president who inherited an economy on the brink of depression, two wars, a $1.3 trillion budget deficit and a chorus of Republicans who want nothing more than to see him fail.
As crucial as any of these accomplishments is what the president has done for America’s public schools. The stimulus bill roughly doubled the budget of the Department of Education overnight and immediately spent $44 billion to plug severe deficits in local and state school budgets. As a result, 325,000 teachers were hired or kept their jobs.
Of the remaining funding, much of it has gone directly toward incentivizing school reform, with remarkable results thus far. The Education Department will give out $4.35 billion in Race to the Top Funds, which are given to states that agree to critical reforms such as lifting caps on charter schools, tying teacher evaluation to student performance, allowing aggressive intervention to turnaround failing schools and embracing national standards.
Thirsty for cash, 40 states have applied for the fund. California, for example, has radically altered its teacher evaluation methods and moved forcefully to close its worst schools. And districts like New Haven have come up with comprehensive reform plans to improve their states’ — and their own — case for receiving funding.
Why, then, the disillusionment about Obama’s performance? Mostly it’s because we need reminders of how far we’ve come. The biggest surprise of Obama’s presidency is that he’s been as uninspiring as Conan was unfunny. And before he gets the premature axing that Conan did, the president must communicate far more effectively that his accomplishments are real and profound and will only grow if we’re willing to fight for them.
Something like this might work: “Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard, and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.”
Sam Brill is a senior in Trumbull College.