Campus, Domestic, Election 2012, Opinion — May 14, 2012 at 10:09 pm

Obama’s Politicized Commencement Speech

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Earlier this afternoon, President Barack Obama delivered a beautiful commencement speech to the graduating students of Barnard College.  Met with resounding applause and a sprinkling of appreciative laughter throughout, the charming speech followed a classic framework, as Obama drew from personal stories, shared inspiring sound bites, and imparted meaningful advice.

photo by Asiya Khaki ’09

President Obama asked whether we can “muster the will … to bring about the changes we need,” concluding that the Barnard graduates and this generation “will help lead the way.” But what if our way is not his way? More importantly, what if my way differs from the woman sitting next to me in my art history class or my English class or my computer science class? What if the change I think we need is a different brand of education reform and a more conservative economic plan?

The oppressive and suffocating categorization of women as this uniformly thinking block is even more rampant at a women’s liberal arts college in New York City, where many women do hold similar political viewpoints. Barnard President Debora Spar, in an interview on MSNBC, boldly told the show’s hostess that “they’re [Barnard students] all huge fans [of Obama].”  Is that true? Can the president of Barnard College say, in good faith, that every single one of her students is a fan of President Barack Obama? Are we that unindividual? Or are we just a liberal student body, and, as women, a key component of the Democratic vote? Too often, the assumed answer is yes.

It is based on this flawed perspective that Obama chose to (and was so quickly welcomed to, even at the expense of another speaker) deliver the Barnard commencement speech.  In essence, very little about Obama’s visit today had to do with Barnard. The ceremony itself was held on the Columbia University campus, and the president left after his speech, never setting foot on our campus. It is telling that he did not have the time to cross Broadway, the street itself increasingly symbolic of the gap between Columbia and Barnard that we as students have been trying for so long to close.

But speaking at the Barnard Commencement – as opposed to that of his alma mater, as many were hurt he had not chosen to do – was the perfect political platform. Delivering a speech to an audience of female graduates presents a uniquely appropriate opportunity to speak on the so-called “women’s issues,” without sounding overtly political.

“You are now poised to make this a century where women shape not only their own destiny but the destiny of this nation and the world,” said Obama.  “Fight for a seat at the table. Better yet, fight for a seat at the head of the table.”

Speaking to women everywhere, these inspiring lines do seem authentic, free of the political agenda that was so very obviously the stage for the speech.  But this overlying context cannot be ignored. His calls to action – for us, as Barnard students and graduates, to “lead the way” – mean only so much when he has a clear way in mind. Their meanings are lessened when they are not open-ended encouragement to pursue our dreams of activism according to our personal and individual beliefs, but rather specific dictates to become the women supporters that he believes he is guaranteed.

In a trend that I find particularly distasteful, “women” has become a political issue.  Candidates are judged on their “support for women,” as if that has a clear set of policy decisions and opinions.  Certain politicians are dubbed “anti-women,” and the GOP has supposedly declared a “War on Women.”

But what can this possibly mean, in a world where women make their own decisions and form their own opinions outside the confines of their gender? Some women are pro-life; some women are pro-choice. Some women are advocates for universal health care; some women are not.  Some women support gun rights, others do not. Some women will vote for Barack Obama in 2012, and other women will not.

Truly supporting women means understanding that the opinions of one woman cannot be assumed based solely on her gender – or her choice of college. Supporting women does not mean dismissing each woman’s individual opinions for the ease of categorizing her gender. Supporting women does not mean delivering a commencement speech at a women’s college, in an election year, because it is a women’s college.

President Barack Obama believes, as does virtually every mainstream politician, that women and men are deserving of equal rights.  There is a long and complex political history to this development. But beyond the principle of equality, no one political perspective is necessarily more “supportive” of women than another.

Today, as the president delivered the Barnard commencement speech under thick political circumstances, I was pleased and relieved that the speech itself was apolitical and inspiring. But its context in this increasing political conceptualization of “women’s issues” left me, as a Barnard student, feeling stereotyped, simplified, and used.

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51 Comments

  1. I think there are some important points in this piece, but it gets one central issue wrong: it conflates the politicization of everything in our time with the complete politicization of the role of the president of the United States. A president, regardless of his political agenda, embodies the leadership of this country and so its ideals, and as such should be expected to promote the advancement of men and women in American society. It is critical to remember that when the president advises “taking a seat at the head of the table,” he is not just talking about one specific table. He did’t say he was; and it is wrong of us to assume he was. If we look at everything the President says solely in a political framework, we risk loosing what is special about the role of the president. This was the point, I think, that Obama made today by specifically not saying anything political. If the change you think we need is a more conservative economic plan, then that was exactly what Obama was advocating today.

    • “it conflates the politicization of everything in our time with the complete politicization of the role of the president of the United States.”

      Erm, how do you conflate the “politicization of everything” with the politicization of anything? If everything is politicized in our time, then the Presidency is also politicized, just as a matter of logic.

      Maybe your emphasis was on the word “complete” but accepting the idea that everything is politicized (even for the sake of argument) doesn’t help get you there.

  2. Joshua, I emphatically disagree. I think Ayelet hit the nail on the head–in political parlance, politicians who support “women’s issues” has come to mean politicians who buy the agenda of the left. Whether or not the left’s position is correct or incorrect is irrelevant, what is interesting (and what I think Ayelet is describing here) is how this labeling serves to isolate other viewpoints–even viewpoints held by women themselves–as against “women’s rights.” Furthermore, I think you are wrong in implying that Obama’s visit was not political. The choice to appear at a the Commencement exercise of a women’s college was an overtly political one, regardless of how overt the actual rhetoric appeared to be.

  3. I hope you do not actually think the way President Obama would have depoliticized this is by walking across the street to your dorm at Barnard. You are right that the President opened the speech by saying that we know the answers and are just lacking the political will to get there. Unfortunately, I think you are blinded by the politicization you wish actually existed in this kind of statement so you could speak ill toward one of the most eloquent speakers in our generation. I do not think President Obama was referring to the “answers” as which budget line we should cut next year, but rather the common goals we all share as a Americans. Liberty and dignity of all people, living within our means, etc. If you are paying attention to Congress now you know that in many cases Senators are holding up bills they support, in an effort to add poison pill amendments and end the process.
    It seems clear to me, that during a commencement ceremony of your distinguished college, which will graduate the smartest women I have ever met, this is a most bipartisan, nationalistic message. These graduates could be the ones to bridge this gap and solve our country’s most pressing problems. Obviously the selection of the location involves politics (even though I am pretty sure NY’s electoral votes are not changing hands any time soon). Unfortunately, it is articles like this which distract us as University students from thinking about progress, from thinking about moving forward, and from following the generation of our parents into a simplistic political game that has cause for much concern.
    Furthermore, you missed the thesis of the speech which really relied on three pieces of advice, including speak up and be a role model. The president did not mention abortion, or equal pay, or contraception for women. I think that the message of this president, one who has compromised on his most key pieces of legislation (healthcare, banking reform, Bush tax cuts for unemployment reform, debt ceiling commission), can be heard as authentic if bold, beautiful, Republican women wish to actually open their ears and hear it. The power to be a role model and speak up transcends politics. Clearly the ability to change someone’s life as a mentor may be more valuable than any policy government will create in our generation.

    One more thing: The president is not only pandering to women in this speech by choosing to speak at Barnard College. You forgot Jews, College graduates, Northeast voters. Also, making you point seem a bit less concrete.

    • Delivering a speech written by many hands other than his own and delivering it via teleprompter does not eloquence make. Regardless of what each of these students took away from the canned message, it was meant for a single purpose; to gin up votes. Ms Pearl is the eloquent one here as she saw through the facade of this presidency and laid eyes on the blarney that it actually is. Kudos to Ms Pearl.

    • Dear Tyler, you seem to assume some sort of superiority here. Maybe that is why Obama is your hero. As for the simplistic political game you have labeled all of us parents into just proves that you agree with the Presidents assumption, that all women think alike and want the same things. You have no idea what what amount of work and time has gone into fighting against this Marxist march to Socialism that you call progress. There is nothing simplistic in trying to prevent the destruction of our Constitution, our Republic and our liberties. Your simplistic view of progress is a sham if you think that Obama has made any real progress. Our Nation is back to 1960′s in race relations, we are moving fast into the same fiscal conditions as Greece and Spain, failures. We parents and grandparents can look back and see how this kind of progress is truly regressive and destructive. You will become noting more then a brick in the wall with further Socialist progress under Obama.

    • Tyler, you DO go on! almost like the prez! What exactly IS your point?. Save yourself and our eyes by just saying “if Obama said it, it’s a fact.!

      • I agree with Tyler, he does not think he’s superior to anyone, you guys do. I am a republican by the way, and don’t support Obama, but this article is simply grasping at straws, the author WANTS to think that she and her classmates are objectified.

  4. Pingback: Obama ‘Stereotyped, Simplified and Used’ Us: Barnard Woman Objects to President’s Commencement Speech « News « @griffinrc

  5. Yes, Ms Pearl, your are expected to get in line. The premise of Obama’s progressive world view is that the “experts” in government know what is best for you. All you have to do is cooperate. You’ll be assured of a Julia-like life from big daddy government. Of course that means you’ll have to give up a little freedom, a little independent thought, but it’s all for the greater good of the collective,er, 99%. so if that vision troubles you, there’s a tea party waiting to welcome you with a copy of the constitution. Your choice.

  6. “But beyond the principle of equality, no one political perspective is necessarily more “supportive” of women than another”

    Yeah, no.

  7. Its good to know there is at least 1 critical thinking intellectual at Barnard. If people don’t know by now that Obama is a classic street hustler who, in different circumstances, could be found on 42 St., they never will. An individual is defined by his or her actions, not by his or her words, and Obama has already defined himself as a would-be tyrant by his actions, even though his words apparently impress some people enough to believe he is the ‘Savior’.

  8. Pingback: Barnard Junior: Obama “Stereotyped, Simplified, and Used” Us. « A Conservative Wanderer

  9. Guess what kids? Obama ain’t leaving office. No way–no how. So get used to it. You wanted big government, well now you’re stuck with it. Welcome to the Peoples Republic of North America! Now isn’t that fine?

  10. The shrieking welcome the graduates gave to Mr. Obama was almost ear-splitting. The President assumed – and rightly so – that at least 95% of the crowd was on his side and in his pocket, so he felt no need to trim his rhetorical sails. He spoke as if the crowd was “on board” because let’s face it – the overwhelming majority (majoritae?) was indeed on board.

    The speech was lazy. He recycled tropes and truisms from prior commencement addresses. His “final piece of advice – persevere! Persevere!” was identical to what he told high schoolers three years ago when he delivered a “back to school” address. ( Mr Obama twice mispronounced the word – perseRvere – an egregious mistake to a crowd that included dozens of English majors.) Despite the shrieks of approval, his address was unoriginal, uninspiring, and honestly – unsurprising.

  11. “But beyond the principle of equality, no one political perspective is necessarily more “supportive” of women than another.”

    Oh, but it IS. An objective definition of feminism is the empowerment of women, freedom for women, choice for women, and health-care for women. And it is the left that abides by the true goals of the feminist movement. A feminist woman can belive in never having an abortion, but a feminist cannot be pro-life. Not politically. And this is why the right, pro-life, anti-socialist-healthcare is not feminist. Feminsim is a facet of liberalism and the idea that what the left aims to promote as “women’s issues” are not the primary issues also promoted from an objective feminist viewpoint is fancy talk. You can argue that if feminism is a specific progressive agenda and not solely any choice at the political level, then not all women’s opinions are encompassed within feminism. In that I would agree with you.

    I absolutely agree that Obama’s sudden decision to speak at a prominent women’s college was motivated by the election year. I also agree with an above commenter who says that perhaps you are assuming that he is assuming that all Barnard women will support him unanimously. Perhaps his decision to deliver a non-political speech was because he didn’t want to alienate, that you feel alienated because you see him as a leftist leader.

    Lastly, you are moaning about being used by Obama? -Your best friend ;)

  12. Yes, you have been cheapened, and used, and belittled. That’s what government does. That’s what any large institution ends up doing, be it government, industry, or even protest movements. He welcomed you to the real world, and so did Deborah Spar, in the most dishonest, contemptible way possible. And you will always be in the minority for having figured that out, and for refusing to sell dignity more cheaply.

  13. Pingback: Thankfully not all College Students Drones that Barry thinks they are! | The Busy Post

  14. Excellent points. I believe not only as a woman, but also as a registered Republican, that it is time to stop lumping and categorizing according to gender or party. I am pro-choice, support gay marriage rights, am not a right winger or a fan of Sarah Palin etc. Nor am I a believer in Obama. I am a fiscal conservative and a social moderate. I live in the real world and I respect differences of opinion. I want to see politicians who do too. Bravo Ayelet!

  15. Ms. Pearl, you are eloquent. Like most people President Obama encounters, and there are legions of men and women who will affidavit to this fact, you were a useful prop for a narcissist. Perhaps the reason that he didn’t or wouldn’t speak at the Columbia commencement means he would have to open up the records regarding his attendance and transcript at that noted university. Are there any?

  16. Pingback: Obama ‘Stereotyped, Simplified and Used’ Us | PERSUASION IN INK

  17. If politicization of a commencement speech means drawing attention to oneself for political gain by a politician running for re-election, here’s further evidence of politicization: http://bit.ly/IUwFft . That’s not the first time for the strategically-placed halo.

    Also, remember, this is the commencement that Obama invited himself to, effectively shoving aside the previously-scheduled speaker, who is an accomplished woman (Jill Abramson). And he did this to try to further the “war on women” narrative. That was a political act. http://bit.ly/wIVMYA

  18. …”one of the most eloquent speakers in our generation.”

    Are you serious? Most pompous, most bombastic, most magniloquent, perhaps.

    I find it interesting that the two critical comments are from males, who miss her point, which is that Democrats assume that all reasonable women vote as this uniform, lockstep bloc. The goal of women’s rights, I thought, was to allow women to make the choices that are best for themselves, but according to the left, women who don’t fall in line with the progressive, liberal “feminist” doctine are accused of “voting against their own interests,” as if the libs are the only ones who can determine women’s interests.

    I applaud Ms. Pearl for having the courage to step out on her own convictions and risk the barrage of criticism she will no doubt face. Liberals refuse to allow other opinions. All opposition must be silenced.

    • I found it interesting that most of the responders to this article are men, not women as the subject would suggest. I guess the men feel they should just jump in and take over for the “gals.”

  19. Honestly, I’m quite confused after reading your article. You seem to want to prove how Obama’s speech failed to address the individuality of his audience and yet you provided no real evidence for your argument. The quotes you used from Obama had no political slant: telling an audience at Barnard to get into leadership positions in the future does not translate into him pandering votes. Instead, you’re employing an ad hominem argument with statements like “His calls to action… mean only so much when he has a clear way in mind” as you’re basically asserting that because Obama is a liberal politician everything he says is intended to promote a liberal, political agenda. Moreover, even the one piece of evidence that actually supported your argument is suspect seen when you quote the president of Barnard saying, “they’re [Barnard students] all huge fans [of Obama]. Not only are “Barnard students” and “of Obama” bracketed in but the fact that the sentence doesn’t even make grammatical sense leads me to believe you took it out of context.

    Ultimately, I agree with Tyler Dratch’s comment that you are blinded by the politicization you want to see. Any speech, by definition, assumes there are commonalities between every member of its audience; after all, the speaker hopes that his/her speech will carry a message pertinent to everyone listening. Your argument then, could be made about any speech — made to any audience anywhere. Therefore, the fact that you have chosen to write on this speech and the gender of its audience shows only your own biases and preoccupations.

    • Of course he was trying to pander votes as well as persuade young people to his leftist liberal political agenda. That is why he had the planned speaker pushed aside, so that he could gain this platform and prove how much he cares about women. It is always about him and his importance to the progressive movement. If I am wrong then why are you trolling here? It is to try and discredit this student’s impression of Obama.

      Go ahead and critique my grammar.

      • So I’m trolling if my comment doesn’t agree with “this student’s impression”? Your comment stems from the same argumentative style I criticized Ms. Pearl for using: you’re applying your own opinion to Obama’s actions without any reasoning as to why your opinion is valid. Nowhere did I state that Ms. Pearl, you, or anyone else can’t have an impression. However, in a public forum, I will “discredit” any opinion I find misleading or poorly constructed.

  20. It’s telling that most of these comments are obviously from males. Great article, but it’s being trolled, and I bet I know by whom. Read about Sunstein’s (Obama appointee) work here: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=199668

  21. Pingback: Student Unimpressed With Obama Using Her as a Prop | Darth Chipmunk

  22. Beautifully written piece… I have tried to get this point across many times, but never so eloquently. Women are being used in this political season. The same politicians who profess to respect women’s rights are boxing us into a stereotype. They need to remember we are individuals who have had a variety of life experiences that shape our opinions, values, beliefs… all deserve the opportunity to advocate for causes whether or not they differ from a particular candidate.

    Thank you, Ayelet Pearl…

  23. How dare you not to worship the greatestest humanoid ever inhabiting the Solar System?! Would you be able to deliver at least once of his meaningless long sentences, even with a teleprompter?!

  24. Actually it’s time to moth ball the notion of women’s issues, and while I’m at it, all those racially based studies too. Do you want a job because of your talent or because you meet a HR quota? Do you want people to listen to your views because you have something valuable to say or because PC says we have to let the little women get their two cents in? As long as there are greivance groups, they will not be taken seriously. Others will pretend to take you seriously, but they will just be mentally checking off their list that they did what the PC police require. If you want respect, to be taken seriously, get rid of the greivance group affiliation and go prove yourself on a level playing field with everyone else.

  25. Pingback: Barnard Student “Rips” Obama and School for “Stereotyping” « Just Americans Making Ethical Statements Weblog

  26. Congratulations: You have demonstrated the first requirement of mature adulthood. Not that you disagree or agree with one person’s ideological notions, but that you percieve your own place in the universe, and you, and you alone are the master of what you think, what you choose, and how you choose to approach issues in life. You bring great credit to your institution and yourself.

    You recognized that the person speaking to you, was not making YOU the subject, the purpose, of his or her attendance of the event. And the event is all about YOU, because you achieved something honorable and dignified. By misusing said event, you, your school, your graduation was cheapened. Not travesty to the universe, really, as it’s just ceremony, not the reality of your achievement that was cheapened. But your recognition… Congratulations on perception, awareness, and the courage to take what will be a minority opinion.

    I predict you will go far in life, no matter whether your goals are to be a global leader… or leader in your household.

  27. Pingback: Hump Day Report: He Said….He Said « Hump Day Report

  28. Ayelet feels the way she does because she is not blinded by the silver tongued devil. One poster here called this teleprompted huckster the most gifted speaker of our generation. The same must be said then for actors in Hollywood that deliver dialog in a way that stuns you emotionally. Yet like this president, the huckster and actor are skilled at presenting lines written and designed to snare and blind. Bravo to Ayelet and the women like her who truly are able to see and think for themselves. History is full of women just like them…Thatcher springs to mind. Ayelet, prepare for battle however, as ‘progressive’ women like to move in unison as they lockstep into life, feeling empowered while doing as they are told.

  29. Very eloquently stated, Ms. Pearl – it’s nice to know that our future is in such thoughtful hands.

    Congratulations on earning your degree, and good luck in your future endeavors!

  30. This article simply assumes too much, it almost seems as if the author is just searching for things to complain about. I agree that politicians having stances on “women” is degrading and not a good thing. However, her analysis of Obama and his speech is overblown, and frankly the author just needs to toughen up and stop looking for reasons to think that she and her classmates are looked down upon as women. Sorry, but this is just how I feel, I agree with a lot of the points the author makes, but I am not sympathetic towards her view of Obama’s speech.

  31. I completely agree with the notion of “the opinions of one woman cannot be assumed based solely on her gender.” Listening to Obama made me feel like men and women are two different species. Yes, there are some political issues that are “anti-women,” but I don’t appreciate being categorized and “stereotyped” and “simplified” as a women in lifestyle. Right on, Ayelet.
    One day, I hope a speaker will try giving a gender neutral speech.

  32. This is a strongly argued and well-written piece, and I always have similar instincts whenever I hear rhetoric about “women.” Agreed, “women” should less often be spoken of as a single category. But in the hard facts of the numbers in leadership, of male versus female congress members, senators, CEOs, etc, there’s obviously a clear discrepancy, so in that sense we still have to talk about “women” versus “men.” Pres. Obama’s basic argument that women should “fight for a seat at the head of the table” lumps all women together because it has to, given the fact that the numbers women in top-tier leadership are still behind the numbers of men… But this is hardly anything at all new. The speech was really a very surface one. I don’t think Pres. Obama “stereotyped” women by addressing the particularities of a female audience any more than Barnard itself addresses itself specifically to a female student body. We’d like to think that voice of encouragement to women to be all they can be isn’t necessary any more, today, but real life tells us otherwise. Yeah, it takes a little extra something to be a women and get where you want, if you’re looking up that high. That’s the main difference Obama was speaking toward, and there’s nothing new or political about it.

  33. He’s a commie. Don’t fall for any of it; it’s a trap.

  34. Pingback: Obamas Politicized Commencement Speech : The Politics Behind Obama’s Non-Political Speech « B Blogging

  35. Pingback: Obama ‘Stereotyped, Simplified and Used’ Us | Just Piper

  36. A great article which shows how liberals think: all people must be put into groups, and then everyone in that group must think (and more importantly to liberals, vote) the same way. There are no individuals, only groups, and anyone who dares to think of themselves as an individual must be marginalized. If you are black and a conservative, then liberals must paint you as an Uncle Tom or an “Oreo”. Clarence Thomas is never celebrated as an African American success story. Why? Because he is conservative.

    And I think her article really shows his this “group-think” is being thrust upon women. According to liberals, all women must demand that birth control be given to them for free. After all, according to liberals, they cannot control when or how they have sex, it is way too complicated for them. They need a man like Obama to take care of them. To demean women this way, to say that they cannot take care of themselves without Daddy Barack giving them stuff, is an affront to the intelligence of all women.

  37. Pingback: Real Women Are Not a Liberal Voting Bloc | Freedom Report

  38. Pingback: Real Women Are Not a Liberal Voting Bloc « News « @griffinrc

  39. Pingback: Real Women Are Not a Liberal Voting Bloc|PolitifreakPolitifreak

  40. Pingback: Real Women Are Not a Liberal Voting Bloc | PERSUASION IN INK

  41. Pingback: Obama’s War On Women, Grating And Condescending « womensdcproject

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