Obama's Politicized Commencement Speech


Earlier this afternoon, President Barack Obama delivered a beautiful commencement speech to the graduating students of Barnard College.  Met with resounding applause and a sprinkling of appreciative laughter throughout, the charming speech followed a classic framework, as Obama drew from personal stories, shared inspiring sound bites, and imparted meaningful advice.

photo by Asiya Khaki '09

President Obama asked whether we can “muster the will … to bring about the changes we need,” concluding that the Barnard graduates and this generation “will help lead the way.” But what if our way is not his way? More importantly, what if my way differs from the woman sitting next to me in my art history class or my English class or my computer science class? What if the change I think we need is a different brand of education reform and a more conservative economic plan?

The oppressive and suffocating categorization of women as this uniformly thinking block is even more rampant at a women’s liberal arts college in New York City, where many women do hold similar political viewpoints. Barnard President Debora Spar, in an interview on MSNBC, boldly told the show’s hostess that “they’re [Barnard students] all huge fans [of Obama].”  Is that true? Can the president of Barnard College say, in good faith, that every single one of her students is a fan of President Barack Obama? Are we that unindividual? Or are we just a liberal student body, and, as women, a key component of the Democratic vote? Too often, the assumed answer is yes.

It is based on this flawed perspective that Obama chose to (and was so quickly welcomed to, even at the expense of another speaker) deliver the Barnard commencement speech.  In essence, very little about Obama’s visit today had to do with Barnard. The ceremony itself was held on the Columbia University campus, and the president left after his speech, never setting foot on our campus. It is telling that he did not have the time to cross Broadway, the street itself increasingly symbolic of the gap between Columbia and Barnard that we as students have been trying for so long to close.

But speaking at the Barnard Commencement – as opposed to that of his alma mater, as many were hurt he had not chosen to do – was the perfect political platform. Delivering a speech to an audience of female graduates presents a uniquely appropriate opportunity to speak on the so-called “women’s issues,” without sounding overtly political.

“You are now poised to make this a century where women shape not only their own destiny but the destiny of this nation and the world,” said Obama.  “Fight for a seat at the table. Better yet, fight for a seat at the head of the table.”

Speaking to women everywhere, these inspiring lines do seem authentic, free of the political agenda that was so very obviously the stage for the speech.  But this overlying context cannot be ignored. His calls to action – for us, as Barnard students and graduates, to “lead the way” – mean only so much when he has a clear way in mind. Their meanings are lessened when they are not open-ended encouragement to pursue our dreams of activism according to our personal and individual beliefs, but rather specific dictates to become the women supporters that he believes he is guaranteed.

In a trend that I find particularly distasteful, “women” has become a political issue.  Candidates are judged on their “support for women,” as if that has a clear set of policy decisions and opinions.  Certain politicians are dubbed “anti-women,” and the GOP has supposedly declared a “War on Women.”

But what can this possibly mean, in a world where women make their own decisions and form their own opinions outside the confines of their gender? Some women are pro-life; some women are pro-choice. Some women are advocates for universal health care; some women are not.  Some women support gun rights, others do not. Some women will vote for Barack Obama in 2012, and other women will not.

Truly supporting women means understanding that the opinions of one woman cannot be assumed based solely on her gender – or her choice of college. Supporting women does not mean dismissing each woman’s individual opinions for the ease of categorizing her gender. Supporting women does not mean delivering a commencement speech at a women’s college, in an election year, because it is a women’s college.

President Barack Obama believes, as does virtually every mainstream politician, that women and men are deserving of equal rights.  There is a long and complex political history to this development. But beyond the principle of equality, no one political perspective is necessarily more “supportive” of women than another.

Today, as the president delivered the Barnard commencement speech under thick political circumstances, I was pleased and relieved that the speech itself was apolitical and inspiring. But its context in this increasing political conceptualization of “women’s issues” left me, as a Barnard student, feeling stereotyped, simplified, and used.