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Internal WH memo: Few entrants in Obama commencement speech contest

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Do you know what it’s like not to have a date for the prom? The president does, sort of.

This year, the White House held a competition similar to one they staged last year in which high schools from around the country could compete to have the president deliver their commencement address. The only problem is that few schools this time seemed interested.

According to an internal memo obtained by CBS News, as of February 25, the deadline for submission, the White House had received just 14 applications! To put that number in perspective, last year 1,000 schools entered the competition—and even that number represented a small fraction of the 27,000 high schools nationwide.

The White House Communications Office, which produced the memo, advised staffers that "something isn't working" and instructed them to ask "friendly congressional, gubernatorial and mayoral offices" to encourage schools to apply. The memo also urged recipients to "please keep the application number close hold." This point is reiterated later in the memo:

We do not want the actual application number out there (we didn't release the number of applications we received last year until after the submission period) so folks should not use it in their pitches.

In an effort to save face, the Education Department changed the deadline for receipt of applications to March 11 and reported on February 28 that they had received 68 applications (though they refused to provide CBS with an updated tally this past Monday). A press aide with the department is quoted by CBS News as explaining that the deadline had been amended

to provide an ample amount of time to reach out to schools from across the country. Like last year, we anticipate the overwhelming majority will be submitted near the close of the Challenge.

The White House did its part by posting an on-line video appeal from the president Obama, though it's hard to say whether this measure averts or is a source of further embarrassment.

It appears at this juncture that 2011 is shaping up to be another difficult year for President Obama. In the event the White House plans to hold another commencement address contest next year, they might want to consider a runner-up prize. Under these rules, the first-place school would win a speech by the president. The second-place school would win two speeches.

Click Subscribe at the top of the page to have my articles sent directly to your e-mail inbox. Follow me on Twitter or join me at Facebook. You can reach me at howard.portnoy@gmail.com or by posting a comment below.

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