"I think it's really unfortunate that politics has been brought into this," White House deputy policy director Heather Higginbottom said.
"It's simply a plea to students to really take their learning seriously. Find out what they're good at. Set goals. And take the school year seriously."
She noted that President George H.W. Bush made a similar address to schools in 1991. Like Obama, Bush drew criticism, with Democrats accusing the Republican president of making the event into a campaign commercial.