President Barack Obama’s high school commencement speech in the tornado-stricken town of Joplin, Mo., pushed a sharply ideological message and included partisan jabs and a call for military-style community action during crises.
“You are from America. No matter how tough times get, you will be tougher,” he told the students and parents May 22. “The road has been hard. The day has been long. But we have tomorrow, so we march. We march together,” he said on the first anniversary of the deadly tornado strike.
The military imagery was entwined with stump-speech language that repeatedly contrasted the president’s progressive ideology of organized acton against what he caricatured as the spiteful and selfish alternative of individualism.
“As you begin the next stage in your journey, you will encounter greed and selfishness; ignorance and cruelty. … You will meet people who try to build themselves up by tearing others down; who believe looking after others is only for suckers,” he said.
“My deepest hope for all of you … [is that] you can serve as a reminder that we’re not meant to walk this road alone; that we’re not expected to face down adversity by ourselves,” he told his audience. “We’re stronger together than we are on our own.”
The “stronger together” phrase is the main slogan used by Obama’s campaign to rally young and first-time voters.
The speech came the same day that Obama declared Gov. Mitt Romney’s work at Bain Capital, not his own record in office, would be the central issue of the 2012 campaign. “This is not a distraction. This is what this campaign is going to be about,” he said during a Chicago press conference. (RELATED: Obama top $1 billion in career political contributions)
Romney’s “main calling card for why he should be president is his business experience… [but] when you’re president, as opposed to the head of a private equity firm, then your job is not simply to maximize profits,” he said during the press conference, while caricaturing Romney’s work as merely profit-making, rather than investing or reforming companies.
In Joplin, Obama repeatedly pushed his progressive ideology as the cure to the economic crisis of his presidency’s first three and one-half years.
The Missouri town’s “stronger together” spirit, Obama said, “is the same spirit we need right now to help rebuild America. … America only succeeds where we all pitch in and pull together — and I’m counting on you to be leaders in that effort.”
The president did not try to explain why the town’s inhabitants wanted to cooperate, or why they trusted each other to cooperate, and he did not suggest that self-interest played a role in the rebuilding. He did, however, deviate from his prepared text to mention God, saying “We need God, we need each other. We’re important to each other, and we’re stronger together than we are on our own.”
Obama also departed from his planned remarks to reprise his campaign-trail claim that an obstinate Congress is opposing his pragmatic political measures.
“Together, you decided that this city wasn’t about to spend the next year arguing over every detail of the recovery effort,” he said “At the very first town meeting, every citizen was handed a Post-It note, and asked to write down their goals and their hopes for Joplin’s future.”
He then added that he was “thinking about trying this with Congress — give them some Post-It notes.”
The jab was one of the few that got any response from the audience, which was muted in comparison to Obama’s usual audience of college students in Democratic districts. Before the speech, Obama shook hands with a group of students who swarmed to him in the gym where they waited for the ceremony to begin.
But a press pool report noted that “about half the seniors, all wearing burgundy caps and gowns, remained back.”
Obama’s text included several campaign-trail slaps at Romney, who is repeatedly charged by by Obama’s campaign with laying people off and closing factories while trying to maximize profits.
“Together, the businesses that were destroyed in the tornado decided that they weren’t about to walk away from the community that made their success possible,” Obama said. “Even if it would have been easier. Even if it would have been more profitable to go somewhere else.”
Media reports have related Obama’s frequent habit of writing portions of his own speeches. This address included seven mentions of “community” and seven mentions of “together,” and ended with a martial call for unity in the face of economic adversity.
“We have tomorrow, so we march. We march together,” said the president, who began his political career as a community organizer in Chicago.
Obama’s military language echoes his 2012 State of the Union speech, when he urged American civilians to model their actions on the U.S. military.
“Those of us who have been sent here to serve [in Congress] can learn a thing or two from the service of our troops,” he declared.
“When you put on that uniform, it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, Asian, Latino, Native American, conservative, liberal, rich, poor, gay, straight. … When you’re in the thick of the fight, you rise or fall as one unit, serving one nation, leaving no one behind,” he said.
However, Obama’s message to Joplin’s high school seniors did not include any of the diversity language that has become common in Obama’s speeches.
That messaging would have been inappropriate because the town, which is half-rebuilt one year after the tornado, is 97.4 percent white and 2.51 percent of Hispanic, according to federal government census data.
Obama’s speech also omitted his campaign slogan, “Forward,” which conservatives and libertarians have derided as a 1930s-era socialist slogan.
The word “forward” appeared twice in the speech, but on both occasions Obama used it to describe how Americans who have received a favor should return it, or “pay it forward.”
Obama’s call for a military-style reorganization of society is a recurrent theme of progressive politicians, dating back to Presidents Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
For example, FDR’s government tried to organize the country as it emerged from the 1929 depression by implementing the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act. That initiative allowed government experts to tightly regulate economic activity by crafting a government seal of approval — the “Blue Eagle” — for companies that complied with the recovery act, and by creating a Civilian Conservation Corps.