Prior presidential campaigns demonstrated that the issues dominating the candidates’ debates often have little to do with their defining positions once in office. JFK and Nixon argued about Quemoy and Matsu, which was forgotten when the campaign ended. More recently, all the wonky issues that Gov. Clinton mastered in his debates with Bush I were eclipsed on day one of his assumption of office, when he surfaced his contentious “Don’t ask; don’t tell” policy about gays in the military.

When the next president takes office — it looks like, and I hope it will be, Sen. Obama — he will face a devastated economy and an unpopular war. Of course, he will throw his administration into those demanding matters. But one initial issue he will face immediately, one that he was never asked about in all the primaries and presidential debates, is where he’ll send his daughters to school.

Public or private? The subject came up tangentially last night when the candidates discussed the troubled District of Columbia public school system. Where the Obamas send their daughters will make clear whether they follow the “elite” road of the Clintons or endorse the importance of public schools by becoming a part of that system, as the Carters did.

No parent wants to send their kids to a bad school to make a point. But no president’s child will suffer in a D.C. public school when the world’s attention focuses on it. If the Obamas go public, it will be an important shot in the arm for public schools — I hope they go that route. The public school system must be made to work, and work well, and the Obamas’ very visible participation in it can only help. Their decision on this personal question will say much about the tone of their administration, though no one asked the candidates the question during the campaign.