It is that time of year again - commencement address season. It’s the time when everyone dusts off Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” from their high school anthologies, a time for secular sermons.
President Obama, a man who has probably never said no to a speaking opportunity in his entire life, recently gave the commencement address to Barnard College, the sister school to his alma mater, Columbia University. It looked about as political as everything else that he’s done since Labor Day, held at an all-the-single-ladies Ivy League school in New York City. It’s hard to think of a friendlier audience for Barack Obama outside of the Kremlin, but he felt the need to pander anyway, and to remind his audience of all the taxpayer-funded lollipops that he could give them, with the not-so-subtle implication that Mitt Romney would take them away. A few days later, the president did the same thing at a high school in Joplin, Mo.
His remarks were as vague and as simplistic as they always are, designed to avoid all offense or disagreement. The only way to do this, of course, is to avoid serious thought.
Here’s what a nonpandering Mr. Obama should have said:
“You can be powerful and stylish, but life is about neither of these things. Life is about character: You can control that. Power, on the other hand, is something people get - and I’m the clearest example that there is - based on luck, timing and circumstances outside of one’s control. Most people whom we consider wealthy or successful or powerful are just a bad day away from losing everything, and most of the people whom we consider lowly are just a job or a rich uncle away from what we call success. My advice is to be like God and ‘not a respecter of persons.’
“This is especially important for your generation, if you ever do attain power - which I doubt you will because of our impending debt crisis which I have done everything possible to help precipitate. Odds are that you will not be powerful for quite some time: In 2011, after two years of recovery from the recession, 53.6 percent of college graduates under the age of 25 were unemployed or underemployed. There is a greater than 50/50 shot that you are about to leave the cocoon of academia - where I have spent much of my life - to waste away in the harsh real world, which I too have wisely avoided. It is an unforgiving world of ‘you’re-on-your-own’ economics. I prefer dependency.
“Total expenses for attending your school over four years - or, as I would put it, your total investment in education - were roughly $160,000. This is largely the government’s fault. We have guaranteed all sorts of subprime student loans, if you will, loans no capitalist in his right mind would guarantee, and, when prices go up and loans become even more nonsensical, we guarantee those loans, too. Thanks to my administration, and to my pandering to you elites, this will continue so long as I am president. I have scared the Republicans into going along with my ideas on this issue, which they should know by now to be stupid. You’re welcome.
“As for being stylish, that is similarly unimportant. Beauty, having reached its height, slowly crumbles and rots. You can’t keep it. You also can’t control most of the factors that contribute to it, so you might as well not hope too hard for it. Try hoping for things you can control and achieve by hard work, and there is no clearer example of that than striving for moral integrity - no one but you can control your character.
“The reason people want power and style is to be seen, to be admired, for people to adore them. As a man whom millions adore, I can tell you firsthand that it is not what it is cracked up to be. It can warp even someone like me, who rose to power meteorically on the promise of healing partisan wounds, into my current dogmatism and mean-spirited caricature of my political opponents.
“Never forget that you were here at Barnard College largely because of great good fortune; don’t assume you deserve everything you have. Humility will protect you from yourself; it will keep you on your guard. Use it.”
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