Graduation speeches are tricky things.
They must be celebratory, optimistic and uplifting—yet grounded in the realities of the day. They need to be given by a bold-faced name that attracts enough interest without crowding out so many seats that Aunt Nancy gets left behind. And their content needs to be compelling enough to keep a stadium full of hungover college students awake without saying anything too offensive for their parents.
President Obama had to straddle that tricky line on Sunday in the commencement address at Ohio State University, the first of three he will give this month (he speaks May 19 at Morehouse College in Atlanta and May 24 at the U. S. Naval Academy in Annapolis). In a speech that was called dour by some and optimistic by others, the president spoke of the need for greater citizenship, and for graduates “to participate, and to persevere.” He said, “As Americans, we are blessed with God-given and inalienable rights, but with those rights come responsibilities – to ourselves, to one another, and to future generations.”
While Obama said he was going to be careful not to get partisan or “offer some grand theory” about how to fix the problems of our democracy—”not when it’s a beautiful day and you’ve got some celebrating to do”—he did wind up his speech with a laundry list of policy issues that read a lot like his administration’s agenda. Repairing the middle class. Pre-K education. Better infrastructure. Advancing basic research. Climate change. Gun control. And so on.
Does that make his speech political, partisan or dour? I don’t think so. He talked about how Washington wasn’t working but didn’t explicitly point fingers; he optimistically told students to reject “that creeping cynicism” and “I dare you to be better.”
But did that make it interesting? Not really. The president’s remarks didn’t have the narrative power or the oratorical force for which he’s so well known.
Then again, this is a commencement address. We should expect much from the graduates walking across the stage at these occasions. From the speeches that help to mark them? Not so much.
Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.