NEW YORK — On a gray day in New York City, about 600 young women gathered under tents to receive their diplomas from Barnard College, the all-female liberal arts school affiliated with Columbia University, and to hear from President Barack Obama.
And they certainly let him know they heard him — giving him multiple standing ovations and breaking into cheers and applause throughout his speech.
In a speech laced with presidential politics, President Obama told the graduates about his efforts to change the American landscape for young women. “If you’re willing to do your part now, if you’re willing to reach up and close that gap between what America is and what America should be, I want you to know that I will be right there with you,” he told the crowd.
The event was, in a way, on home turf for Obama. The crowd was frenzied from the moment Obama took the stage, and welcomed him with a standing ovation.
“We know that our challenges are eminently solvable,” Obama said. “The question is whether together, we can muster the will — in our own lives, in our common institutions, in our politics — to bring about the changes we need.”
“He spoke very inspirationally about the powerful women in his life, and it gives us hope,” Kathryn McNeirney, a 2012 graduate, told TPM. But the students in the crowd were keenly aware that in addition to imparting encouragement and wisdom, the speech was also an opportunity for Obama to emphasize his commitment to winning women voters.
“There’s no other reason,” McNeirney said of the political motivations for Obama to choose Barnard. But McNierney said she welcomed Obama’s presence, regardless of motivations. “I had President Obama as my commencement speaker, of course I’m fine with that.”
President Obama invoked powerful women throughout his speech, including longtime women office holders like Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and outgoing Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME), along with members of his administration.
“I think of a friend of mine who is the daughter of immigrants — when she was in high school, her guidance counselor told her, ‘You are just not college material. You should think about becoming a secretary,’” Obama said, referring to Hilda Solis. But Solis did go to college and ultimately, he said, “Hilda Solis did end up becoming a secretary. … She is America’s secretary of labor.”
“President Obama has done a number of things, but he’s really put a lot of women in high-profile positions and playing a large role in the administration, way beyond the token roles,” Barnard President Deborah Spar told TPM after the ceremony, mentioning Secretary of State Hillary Clinton specifically, calling her part of Obama’s legacy.
The president did not directly acknowledge his recent endorsement of same-sex marriage, a move widely seen as a way to motivate younger voters, but the topic was broached in other ways. Barnard also awarded a Medal of Distinction to Evan Wolfson, the founder and president of Freedom to Marry, a pro-gay marriage organization. “We realized it was going to be an interesting matching to have him and Evan Wolfson on the stage together,” Spar said. Obama’s announcement last week that he was in favor of legal same-sex marriage “upped the political interest” around campus, Spar said.
But some students disagreed. “I don’t think it [Obama’s support for gay marriage] sparked that much excitement because it wasn’t a really exciting announcement,” said 2012 graduate Hallie McPherson, who admitted she was “a little cynical about Obama” even though she’ll be voting for him. “It’s a good step to say he’s for gay marriage, and he wouldn’t have done that if it wasn’t an election year, and he thought that would win a certain demographic. We’ve been waiting four years for him to take a stand on gay marriage and for him to take action on it.”
Kyle is the Editor of TPM Media’s PollTracker. He graduated from Beloit College (WI) and began working in politics before getting an M.A. in magazine journalism from New York University, where he interned at TPM and the website of The New Yorker.