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Commencement speeches from US presidents take a different tone as their terms wind down

reagan at notre dame
AP Photo/stf
Talking policy, or talking graduates?
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

It’s commencement season again. Some universities bring in famous people for honorary degrees. Some stick to the old standby of a speaker chosen from among the graduates. And some go political—choosing a candidate or an elected official.

Every year, one or two schools get to hear from the president of the United States. When the news comes that the president is coming to speak at a university’s commencement ceremonies, the reaction is often mixed.

Predictably, some students and families will protest the presence on campus of a leader with whom they vehemently disagree. Also expected are the reactions of others who are thrilled to have a president they like, on such an important day.

Regardless of the reaction leading up to the speech, the remarks of US presidents are often something to be remembered by those in attendance and by a broader audience.

What will the president say?

The speeches often have a very different tone depending on the timing of the remarks. Early on in a presidency, the speeches often sound a lot like a stump speech, focused more on the audience outside the stadium than within. Toward the end of a second term, however, presidents tend to focus more on legacy building and reflection.

After 20 years of working in and around politics and communications, I’ve started an academic career teaching strategic political communication and public relations. I’m studying the content of presidential commencement speeches—how they’ve changed, what they’re meant to accomplish and how they evolve throughout a presidency.

I’m learning there is a cadence to the life cycle of a two-term president’s commencement addresses that’s surprisingly similar.

Early first-term commencement addresses by presidents (from the mid-1970s to present day) tend to focus more on politics and policy and less on the graduates themselves.

When president Jimmy Carter spoke to graduates of the University of Notre Dame in 1977, the speech focused on foreign policy. He said, “…I want to speak to you today about the strands that connect our actions overseas with our essential character as a nation.”

In his remarks, he built on the messages of his inaugural address, saying, “I’ve tried to make these premises clear to the American people since last January. Let me review what we have been doing and discuss what we intend to do.”

In my review of the transcript of his remarks, the graduates themselves were referenced directly in the first 476 words of the speech and again in his final 15 words of the 3,197-word speech. But the entire middle section of his remarks—fully 85% of his speech—focused on advancing Carter’s foreign policy goals and accomplishments.

Similarly, when president George H W Bush addressed Texas A&M University in 1989, the focus was primarily on the Soviet Union and the sunset of the Cold War.

He prefaced his policy section to graduates by saying:

We are reminded that no generation can escape history. Parents, we share a fervent desire for our children and their children to know a better world, a safer world. And students, your parents and grandparents have lived through a world war and helped America rebuild the world…and today I would like to use this joyous and solemn occasion to speak to you and to the rest of the country about our relations with the Soviet Union.

He then spoke for the remainder of his address—80% of the remarks—about his priorities and plans to address global issues.

Speeches by president Ronald Reaganpresident Bill Clintonpresident George W Bush, and president Barack Obama early in their presidencies also kept to the “policy/agenda” message strategy.

Address changes in the second term

On the other end of the spectrum, presidents nearing the end of their time in office often bring a more reflective, graduate-centric approach to the remarks, while also solidifying their legacies. If new presidents focus on the “commander-in-chief” part of their jobs, presidents toward the end of their careers seem to relish the role of “wisdom imparter,” with a dash of legacy building thrown in.

For instance, president Reagan, in remarks at the US Coast Guard Academy commencement ceremony in 1988, spoke about the Coast Guard, its members, and its successes for 45% of the speech.

He devoted 55% of the speech to reminding the audience of his administration’s work on addressing the nation’s drug problem and its progress in relations with Moscow.

In his remarks at Miami Dade College in 2007, president George W Bush remarked extensively on the successes of the class of 2007, and told stories of the graduates themselves.

He used these stories, including that of immigrant Gwen Belfon, a single mother from Trinidad and Tobago, to highlight his administration’s work on immigration reform. He said she and other graduates were helping to “…maintain the promise of the United States of America,” which “…requires that we remain an open and welcoming society.”

Bush said, “Over the years, America’s ability to assimilate new immigrants has set us apart from other nations.” He used the opportunity to push Congress to advance his legislation in service to this “promise” of America.

Address to the graduates

In a commencement address at Notre Dame in 2009, Barack Obama continued his push for cooperation and unity—a message he had made a centerpiece of his campaign. He said:

Moreover, no one person, or religion, or nation can meet these challenges alone. Our very survival has never required greater cooperation and greater understanding among all people from all places than at this moment in history.

This emphasis on unity was especially noteworthy due to controversy surrounding Obama’s position on abortion and his speech to the Catholic university.

With president Obama’s second term wrapping up next year, the commencement addresses he gives between now and 2016 are likely to focus on the graduates themselves and the world they’ll be entering. Remarks on May 10, 2015, in South Dakota have proven this to be true so far.

President Obama’s message to graduates of Lake Area Technical Institute in Watertown, South Dakota, was much more reflective in tone and focused more on the graduates themselves. He shared stories of graduates in attendance, and said,

So that’s why I came here today—to this little tiny school, in this little tiny town. I didn’t come here to inspire you. I came here because you, the graduates, inspire me. That’s why I came here.

He also used the occasion to tout his administration’s proposal for free community college tuition for all Americans, saying,

So as a country, we can’t afford to let any striving American be priced out of the education they need to get ahead. For everybody willing to work for it, we need to make two years of community college as free and universal as high school is today. It’s the right thing to do.

President Obama has one more graduation season left. If past is prologue, we’ll hear more reflection and less stump speech from this commander-in-chief, too.

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