WASHINGTON — As the nation focuses on the crisis in Libya, soaring gas prices and a looming budget showdown with Congress, President Barack Obama on Thursday will turn his attention to something different — the problem of bullying.
He and first lady Michelle Obama will host a White House Conference on Bullying Prevention. They'll bring parents, teachers and experts to the executive mansion for a series of talks and seminars on how to stop bullying and help victims survive it.
Critics say it's a poor use of the president's time and energy at a time of pressing, even urgent, needs elsewhere. They question whether the federal government even needs to get involved.
But Obama thinks he can turn a problem that troubles many localities into a national priority. Some parents of children who've killed themselves agree; they want Congress to enact a national law ordering schools to adopt anti-bullying policies.
"This isn't an issue that makes headlines every day, but it affects every single young person in our country," Obama says in a video released Wednesday by the White House.
"It's something we care about not only as president and first lady but also as parents," adds Michelle Obama.
Sirdeaner Walker, whose 11-year-old son killed himself two years ago after enduring anti-gay slurs, said she welcomed Obama's high-profile involvement.
"It's important for the president to weigh in on this because this is a national health crisis facing our children," said Walker, who will attend the White House conference. "We've always looked to the federal government for leadership in civil rights, and we need to look to the federal government now."
She said a top goal is getting Congress to pass the proposed Safe Schools Improvement Act. It would require schools receiving federal money to adopt policies prohibiting bullying and harassment, including bullying on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
"We need federal anti-bullying legislation to protect the most vulnerable kids," Walker said. "When this happened to my son, there was no law in Massachusetts. There was no place to turn to make sure this didn't happen to another family."
Massachusetts has since passed an anti-bullying law, but she said that federal legislation is needed to cover states that lack such laws.
The issue grabbed attention in recent months with news of several young people committing suicide after being bullied, particularly because they were gay or perceived to be gay.
An 18-year-old college student in New Jersey killed himself in September after someone taped him having sex with a man and posted the video on the Internet. Indeed, the explosive growth of online social networking has allowed bullies to taunt people even more, often anonymously and with far greater reach.
Still, despite the compelling nature of the problem, it isn't on the public's priority list for the federal government, according to polls. Americans rank the economy and jobs their top national priority by far, followed by such issues as the federal budget and debt, health care, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"Although we have not polled on the issue of bullying, one suspects it's not very high on the list of priorities Americans have for the president," said Peter Brown, the assistant director of the Polling Institute at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.
Some say the entire issue is better left to schools, local communities and states.
"I guess it's important to put out a statement. But bullying is a state and local issue," said Brian Darling, the director of government studies at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research group.
"It clearly isn't a good use of time," Darling added. "There are big issues out there. It seems like the president's distracted from the important work at hand, like working on a resolution to keep the government funded through the rest of the year."
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., an Obama ally, this week ripped the president for not getting involved in budget talks. Obama is delegating that task to his staff for now. Unless a deal is struck, funding will expire on March 18 and may lead to a government shutdown.
"Our president has failed to lead this debate or offer a serious proposal for spending and cuts that he would be willing to fight for," Manchin told the Senate.
"Respectfully, I am asking President Obama to take this challenge head on, bring people together and propose a compromise plan for dealing with our nation's fiscal challenges, both now and for the future."
Larry Gerson, a political scientist at San Jose State University in California, said it makes sense for Obama to spend time on bullying, given his broader goal of promoting civility in politics and public life. He said a president can, and should, be able to manage several major challenges at the same time.
"I would find it hard to believe he's taking the problems of Libya, the recession and the budget deadlock off the table and replacing them with a meeting on bullying," Gerston said. "I don't think it's one or the other. A president, much like a CEO, must balance a number of activities through the course of a day."
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