President Barack Obama's Commencement Addresses: A Look Back At His Words At Graduation Graduations are always milestones for the students. This year they're a milestone for the president, too, as he begins to look towards his own graduation from the Oval Office.
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A Portrait Of The President, One Commencement Speech At A Time

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A Portrait Of The President, One Commencement Speech At A Time

A Portrait Of The President, One Commencement Speech At A Time

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/477997666/478114703" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

President Obama delivers the commencement address this afternoon at Rutgers University in New Jersey. It's one of the last times Obama will speak to a graduating class while he's in office. NPR's Scott Horsley looks back at some of the nearly two dozen commencement addresses this president has given over the last seven years.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Members of the Rutgers class of 2016 might count themselves lucky. They're graduating into one of the best job markets in years. The picture was very different back in the summer of 2009, when Obama delivered a sobering message to graduates of Arizona State University.

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BARACK OBAMA: The economy remains in the midst of a historic recession, the worst we've seen since the Great Depression.

HORSLEY: Digging out of that hole would take years. But by the time he spoke to graduates at Howard University last weekend, Obama said with confidence this is one of the best moments in history to be alive. Kathleen Hall Jamieson studies presidential speechmaking at the Annenberg School for Communication.

KATHLEEN JAMIESON: You can track from the 2009 addresses a progression toward an Obama who believes that the economy is prospering and these young people are entering a much better world - implicitly, of course, thanks to his policies.

HORSLEY: You can also track the nation's military movements in the graduation speech the president gives each spring at one of the five service academies. When Obama spoke to cadets at West Point in 2010, the country had been at war for nine years and was in the midst of a troop surge in Afghanistan.

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OBAMA: I stand here humbled by the knowledge that many of you will soon be serving in harm's way.

HORSLEY: Four years later, Obama returned to West Point having ended one combat mission and with a deadline to end another.

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OBAMA: You are the first class to graduate since 9/11 who may not be sent into combat in Iraq or Afghanistan.

(APPLAUSE)

HORSLEY: The celebration was premature. Within weeks, the Iraqi city of Mosul would fall to ISIS. While the military academies are regular stops, other graduation venues are carefully chosen to make a point - about immigration at Miami Dade College, example, or African-American achievement at Morehouse. Jamieson says the pomp and circumstance offers the president a chance to step back from the crush of the daily news cycle.

JAMIESON: One of the interesting things about commencement addresses by presidents is they are highly introspective in interesting ways. These are very personal moments.

HORSLEY: A recurring theme for Obama is how citizens in a diverse country like this one can navigate their differences. He addressed that early on at Notre Dame, where just the invitation from a Catholic school was controversial given the president's position on abortion. Obama returned to the subject last weekend at Howard, telling graduates change requires listening as well as speaking out.

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OBAMA: In particular, it requires listening to those with whom you disagree and being prepared to compromise.

HORSLEY: Graduations are always a milestone for the students. This year, they're a milestone for the president, too, as he begins to look towards his own graduation from the Oval Office and the commencement of his post-presidential career.

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OBAMA: I used to joke about being old. Now I realize, I'm old.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: It's not a joke anymore.

HORSLEY: Obama says one ceremony he won't be speaking at this year is his oldest daughter's high school graduation. When Malia gets her diploma next month, Obama says he'll be sitting in the audience, wearing dark glasses and crying. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.

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