It’s been a long time since we heard a politician good-naturedly disparage some part of themselves. But that’s exactly what former president Barack Obama did when he mentioned his “big ears” at the start of his virtual commencement message. On Saturday, Obama spoke to over 27,000 graduating seniors at 78 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU).
It was an endearing start to the message and in the glut of all the unsettling news we browse, sort through, or even skip; the graduates (and the rest of us) needed something — anything — to feel good about. Increasingly, it seems like the days of presidential speeches that uplift, motivate, inspire and even make us chuckle, are remnants of a time already past.
But that was the very point of Obama’s talk. In essence, graduates, don’t believe Trump’s hype. Whining, victimization and self-obsession are not normal topics for a commencement address. In 2017, President Trump made headlines about his “unfair” treatment by the media during a commencement speech to the graduating class of U.S. Coastguard Cadets.
Still the media has to take some responsibility for sensationalizing some parts of President Obama’s recent speech. A quick scan of the headlines played up Obama’s apparent criticism of the Trump Administration’s pathetic handling of the novel coronavirus pandemic in the United States. This would surely bait a fight with Trump.
Anecdotally, few headlines spoke to the real point of Obama’s speech — that black students and other graduating students of color have the power to change the economic, political, ethical, scientific and cultural landscapes of the New World Order in which they find themselves today. That was the bigger message that some media outlets seemed to give short shrift.
Reminiscent of FDR’s “Fireside Chats” on radio during WWII, Obama’s style is always easy, infused with a genuine smile. What a nice change from the grand-standing and self-congratulatory “presidential” smirking (always at someone else’s expense) to which Americans have had to adapt.
More than that, it felt good to look past the current climate of fear, racial intolerance and purpose-driven misinformation to a time when these young people will burst forth upon our nation with light, positivity, creativity, imagination and a renewed respect for truth. The window of opportunity for that change just might be in November.