In what amounted to a campaign speech aimed at courting the female vote in November, President Barack Obama delivered a commencement address at Barnard College on Monday, offering advice to young women graduates that seemed calculated to overcome the steep economic hurdles his re-election effort faces.
Despite national pessimism and a constant barrage of bad news — “Good news doesn’t get the same kind of ratings as bad news anymore,” he cautioned — “my job today is to tell you: Don’t believe it. Because as tough as things have been, I am convinced you are tougher.”
“Nothing worthwhile is easy,” he said, sounding like a preview of a fall campaign theme. “No one of achievement has avoided failure. But they keep at it. They learn from mistakes. They do not quit.”
Just days after announcing his personal approval of same-sex marriage, the president shared the stage with Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, a leading same-sex-marriage advocacy group. Like Obama, Wolfson received Barnard’s Medal of Distinction. But Wolfson did not deliver any remarks.
Though several other speakers on the dais praised Obama’s change of heart on the issue, the president himself alluded to it only indirectly, with one passing mention of “gay rights” late in his speech.
The White House approached Barnard, a female-only affiliate of Columbia University, and offered Obama as a commencement speaker. Ironically, the move bumped a woman off the stage: Jill Abramson, the first female Executive Editor of the New York Times, who was originally scheduled to speak.
Obama took the stage at the start of the ceremony to wild applause and cheering, wearing light blue Columbia robes. The crowd erupted into applause at each mention of his name, but it was no louder than the applause for Barnard itself, and for the graduating students. (RELATED: Full coverage of the Obama campaign)
Touting the accomplishments of her fellow students, senior class president Jaclyn D’Aversa joked: “With all due respect, Mr. President, it is a good thing that none of the women of the class of 2012 are running for president this year.”
In his speech, Obama did acknowledge the biggest sticking point of his re-election bid, noting that the students were graduating into an economy that had fallen on tough times.
“Some of you have seen your parents put off retirement, friends struggled to find work, and you may be looking toward the future with the same level of concern as my generation did,” he said.
But the president quickly returned to female-friendly progressive themes. As women, he cautioned, they would face unique challenges, including how to “balance the demands of job and family,” to “fully control decisions about your own health,” and to earn paychceks equal to those of men.
Obama touted his signing of the Lily Ledbetter Act, which mandated equal pay for men and women performing the same jobs. He did not mention the 2011 annual report on White House staff, whose statistics media reports have shown indicate female White House employees in his administration earned, on average, approximately 18 percent less than males.
In another He also noted the fortieth anniversary of Title IX, which required schools to have women’s sports teams.