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The Politics of Presidential Commencement Addresses: Not Just for Grads

Barack Obama at Notre Dame commencement May 2009

President Barack Obama bows his head during the invocation at the University of Notre Dame’s commencement ceremony, May 17, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney each delivered commencement addresses this week to core constituents of their respective party’s base. It is fair to say that both speeches were campaign speeches. Obama personally requested to be the speaker at Barnard College’s commencement back in February. His campaign has been courting women and young voters and enjoys a fairly substantial lead over Mitt Romney among women voters. Obama drew cheers after he told the nearly 600 female graduates on Monday:

You are now poised to make this the century when women shape not only their own destiny, but the destiny of this nation and this world. Don’t just get involved. Fight for your seat at the table. Better yet, fight for a seat at the head of the table.

While Obama’s address was delivered to a rather friendly crowd, Mitt Romney delivered the commencement address at Liberty University on Saturday to an audience of evangelical Christians who have at times expressed doubts about his candidacy. His speech was “deeply spiritual,” though he avoided discussing his Mormon faith, which has been one point of contention with conservative Christians. Instead he focused on an appealing middle ground of service, moral purpose and a common worldview. Most notably, Romney only referred to gay marriage once in his speech saying, “Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman,” to which he received the most sustained applause. Pundits have asserted he passed on an opportunity to fire up the conservative base and that he’s not going to make President Obama’s embrace of gay marriage an issue in the 2012 campaign.

Of course this wasn’t the first time in history that presidential candidates have delivered commencement addresses for campaign purposes or to justify policies. We dug into our archives here at the Miller Center to highlight a number of memorable commencement speeches, which can be found below.  Follow the links to read the full text and watch videos of the commencement addresses.

On June 10, 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt gave the commencement address at the University of Virginia, where one of his sons was graduating. The speech has come to be known as the “Stab in the Back” speech as Roosevelt addressed Italy’s declaration of war against France and the UK earlier in the day. More broadly, Roosevelt argued against American isolationism:

Some indeed still hold to the now somewhat obvious delusion that we of the United States can safely permit the United States to become a lone island, a lone island in a world dominated by the philosophy of force.

Such an island may be the dream of those who still talk and vote as isolationists. Such an island represents to me and to the overwhelming majority of Americans today a helpless nightmare of a people without freedom- the nightmare of a people lodged in prison, handcuffed, hungry, and fed through the bars from day to day by the contemptuous, unpitying masters of other continents.

John F. Kennedy delivered a commencement address at Yale University on June 11, 1962 that still resounds among today’s economic debates. He used the opportunity to address partisan critiques about the size of government, to justify government regulation of fiscal and monetary policy, and to discuss public confidence in business and America.  JFK concluded:

But the unfortunate fact of the matter is that our rhetoric has not kept pace with the speed of social and economic change. Our political debates, our public discourse—on current domestic and economic issues—too often bear little or no relation to the actual problems the United States faces.
What is at stake in our economic decisions today is not some grand warfare of rival ideologies which will sweep the country with passion but the practical management of a modern economy. What we need is not labels and cliches but more basic discussion of the sophisticated and technical questions involved in keeping a great economic machinery moving ahead.

At Howard University’s commencement on June 4, 1965, Lyndon Baines Johnson praised the progress made in civil rights, while asking citizens to address other serious challenges to the country, including the economic gulf between blacks and whites, and the persistent injustices in America. Johnson told the crowd that the voting rights bill was the last in a series of victories, but it was only the beginning:

That beginning is freedom; and the barriers to that freedom are tumbling down. Freedom is the right to share, share fully and equally, in American society—to vote, to hold a job, to enter a public place, to go to school. It is the right to be treated in every part of our national life as a person equal in dignity and promise to all others.
But freedom is not enough…it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates. This is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.

Jimmy Carter’s address to the graduating class of the University of Notre Dame on May 22, 1977 made the case for his administration’s foreign policy.  Carter asserted confidence in the American democratic system and the moral character of the nation as an example for other nations. He argued that the United States should engage in constructive global engagement based upon five principles: commitment to human rights; reinforcement of bonds among democracies; engagement with the Soviet Union in a joint effort to halt the strategic arms race; improving the chances of lasting peace in the Middle East; and the reduction nuclear proliferation and the worldwide spread of conventional weapons. Carter argued that his approach to foreign policy would differ from previous administrations:

For too many years, we've been willing to adopt the flawed and erroneous principles and tactics of our adversaries, sometimes abandoning our own values for theirs. We've fought fire with fire, never thinking that fire is better quenched with water. This approach failed, with Vietnam the best example of its intellectual and moral poverty. But through failure we have now found our way back to our own principles and values, and we have regained our lost confidence…

The world is still divided by ideological disputes, dominated by regional conflicts, and threatened by danger that we will not resolve the differences of race and wealth without violence or without drawing into combat the major military powers. We can no longer separate the traditional issues of war and peace from the new global questions of justice, equity, and human rights.

It is a new world, but America should not fear it. It is a new world, and we should help to shape it. It is a new world that calls for a new American foreign policy--a policy based on constant decency in its values and on optimism in our historical vision.

Four years later, Ronald Reagan was the fifth president to deliver a commencement address at the University of Notre Dame. The recently inaugurated president reaffirmed his campaign platform for a more limited government and increased reliance on the private sector and sought to enlist graduates in the task:

Well, at last we're remembering, remembering that government has certain legitimate functions which it can perform very well, that it can be responsive to the people, that it can be humane and compassionate, but that when it undertakes tasks that are not its proper province, it can do none of them as well or as economically as the private sector. For too long government has been fixing things that aren't broken and inventing miracle cures for unknown diseases. We need you. We need your youth. We need your strength. We need your idealism to help us make right that which is wrong.

And finally, in the commencement address to Texas A&M University on May 12, 1989, George H.W. Bush outlined his administration’s plans and policies toward building an open relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union as the historic Cold War struggle between two countries was diminishing:

We are approaching the conclusion of an historic postwar struggle between two visions: one of tyranny and conflict and one of democracy and freedom. The review of U.S.-Soviet relations that my administration has just completed outlines a new path toward resolving this struggle. Our goal is bold, more ambitious than any of my predecessors could have thought possible. Our review indicates that 40 years of perseverance have brought us a precious opportunity, and now it is time to move beyond containment to a new policy for the 1990s—one that recognizes the full scope of change taking place around the world and in the Soviet Union itself. In sum, the United States now has as its goal much more than simply containing Soviet expansionism. We seek the integration of the Soviet Union into the community of nations. And as the Soviet Union itself moves toward greater openness and democratization, as they meet the challenge of responsible international behavior, we will match their steps with steps of our own. Ultimately, our objective is to welcome the Soviet Union back into the world order.

 

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