President Obama is delivering the commencement address Sunday at Rutgers University in New Jersey, on the 250th anniversary of the school’s founding. It’s one of the last times Obama will speak to a graduating class while he’s in office.
But it’s by no means his first. In fact, the president has delivered nearly two dozen commencement speeches over the past seven years. A look back at that collection of commencement remarks helps reveal the problems and promises of the days they were delivered.
Among the topics that have loomed largest in that time is the economy. And in that regard, members of the Rutgers class of 2016 might count themselves lucky. They’re graduating into one of the best job markets in years.
The picture was very different back in the summer of 2009, when Obama delivered a sobering message to graduates of Arizona State University.
“We gather here tonight in times of extraordinary difficulty, for the nation and for the world,” he said then. “The economy remains in the midst of a historic recession, the worst we’ve seen since the Great Depression.”
Digging out of that hole would take years. But by the time he spoke to graduates at Howard University last weekend, Obama said with confidence this is one of the best moments in history to be alive.
“You can track from the 2009 addresses a progression toward an Obama who believes that the economy is prospering and these young people are entering a much better world — implicitly, of course, thanks to his policies,” says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who researches presidential speechmaking at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication.
You can also track the nation’s military movements in the graduation speech the president gives each spring at one of the five service academies. When Obama spoke to cadets at West Point in 2010, the country had been at war for nine years and was in the midst of a troop surge in Afghanistan.
“I stand here humbled by the knowledge that many of you will soon be serving in harm’s way.”
Four years later, Obama returned to West Point, having ended one combat mission and with a deadline to end another.
“You are the first class to graduate since 9/11 who may not be sent into combat in Iraq or Afghanistan,” he said.
The celebration was premature. Within weeks, the Iraqi city of Mosul would fall to ISIS. When he speaks to graduates at the Air Force Academy next month, Obama will still be staring at an open-ended troop commitment in Afghanistan.
While the military academies are regular stops, other graduation venues are carefully chosen to make a point — about immigration, for example, at Miami Dade College, or about African-American achievement, at Morehouse College.
Jamieson says the pomp and circumstance offers the president a chance to step back from the crush of the daily news cycle.
“One of the interesting things about commencement addresses by presidents is they are highly introspective in interesting ways,” she says. “These are very personal moments.”
A recurring theme for Obama is how citizens in a diverse country like this one can navigate their differences. He addressed that early on at Notre Dame, where just the invitation from a Catholic school was controversial, given the president’s position on abortion. Obama returned to the subject last weekend at Howard, telling graduates change requires listening as well as speaking out.
“In particular,” he said, “it requires listening to those with whom you disagree and being prepared to compromise.”
Graduations are always a milestone for the students. This year they’re a milestone for the president, too, as he begins to look towards his own graduation from the Oval Office and the commencement of his post-presidential career.
“I used to joke about being old,” he said at Howard last week. “Now I realize, I’m old. It’s not a joke any more.”
Obama says one ceremony he won’t be speaking at this year is his oldest daughter’s high school graduation. When his daughter Malia gets her diploma next month, Obama says he’ll be sitting in the audience wearing dark glasses and crying.