Obama urges graduates to persevere through bad economy, life’s challenges

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President Obama, whose re-election is counting on support from women and young voters, encouraged graduating students from a women’s college in New York to aim high and persevere through life’s many challenges, imploring them to demand a seat at the table and work hard to attain it.

The president served as the commencement speaker at Barnard College, a private’s women’s college in New York City, located just across the street from Columbia University where he graduated in 1983, the first year women were admitted. Looking to reinvigorate the youth movement that propelled his surge in 2008, Monday’s appearance at Barnard, where his half-sister Maya Soetoro-Ng attended, was Mr. Obama’s fourth trip to a college or high school in the last two weeks.

Even though he graduated nearly 30 years ago, he said his class was facing the same sense of uncertainty in the future as the class of 2012.

In a message that seemed to serve the dual purpose of encouraging the graduates to pursue their dreams, as well as support his candidacy, Mr. Obama had a simple solution for those who focus on “creeping cynicism” about the nation’s political system and its economic future: “Don’t believe it.”

“As tough as things have been, I’m convinced that you are tougher,” he said. “I’ve seen your passion and I’ve seen your service. I’ve seen you engage and turn out in record numbers.”

“I am convinced your generation possesses that will, and I believe that the women of this generation — all of you — will lead the way,” he told the audience. “Make this century when women shape not only their own destiny, but the destiny of the nation and the destiny of this world.”

Mr. Obama shared the stage with Evan Wolfson, a lawyer and gay activist who founded the group Freedom to Marry. Mr. Wolfson received an award for his lifetime of work on behalf of gay rights before the president spoke.

Even before the speech, Mr. Obama’s first commencement address of the year, Mitt Romney’s campaign was attempting to undercut the president’s message with a dose of reality about the bleak economic outlook the class of 2012 faces, as well of the mountain of debt Mr. Obama has left for future generations.

“When President Obama delivers his commencement address today, he won’t mention that his liberal policies of wasteful spending have left graduating students with trillions of dollars in new debt,” said Romney campaign spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg.

The Republican National Committee accused Mr. Obama of failing to level with graduates about the still-struggling job market they face after three years of his policies and a string of broken campaign promises.

“He certainly didn’t mention how his own policies have made the job market tougher for college grads and for the women of Barnard College,” said RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski. “Young Americans and women are suffering disproportionately in the Obama economy and lofty slogans and speeches will not erase the failed promises Obama made in 2008.”

The unemployment rate among younger Americans has shot up recently, even as it as declined to 8.1 percent overall, as a record number in the U.S. labor force have stopped looking for work and dropped out of the job market altogether. The April jobless rate for 20-24 year olds was 13.2 percent, up from 12.4 percent since Mr. Obama took office.

Democrats usually win the women’s vote, and in 2008, Mr. Obama carried 56 percent of female voters to 43 percent for Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, according to national exit polls. Polls show Mr. Obama with a wide lead among single and younger women, while Mr. Romney fares better among married women.

During his remarks, Mr. Obama also reaffirmed his support for gay rights. The Constitution, he said, was written to allow for changing times and guarantees that “no matter who you love or what God you love, you can still pursue your own happiness,” he said. “I will be with you every step of the way.”

The comments came less than a week after Mr. Obama announced his support for gay marriage and just two days after Mr. Romney reiterated his opposition to marriage for same-sex couples during a Saturday speech to Liberty University graduates.

The timing of the president’s address has spurred questions about whether Mr. Obama’s announcement on same-sex marriage was affected by his decision to accept the invitation to speak.

Barnard originally booked New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson, who agreed to step aside when Mr. Obama asked to address the women’s college after a firestorm erupted over new administration mandates on contraception coverage as part of the new health care law.

After his speech, Mr. Obama planned to tape an appearance on ABC’s female-oriented “The View” program and attend two campaign fundraisers. One fundraiser, to thank him for his support for gay marriage, will be held in New York’s heavily gay Chelsea neighborhood and hosted by Ricky Martin and the LGBT Leaders Council. The other will be at the Fifth Avenue home of Hamilton James, president of the Blackstone Group, a private equity firm.

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