President Barack Obama exhorted graduates of Barnard College to “embrace and rekindle” the “defiant, can-do spirit” of past generations, invoking the individuals who marched at Stonewall and other civil rights battles in a commencement speech on Monday.
“That’s how we achieved women’s rights,” said Obama. “That’s how we achieved voting rights. That how we achieved workers’ rights. That’s how we achieved gay rights. That’s how we made this union more perfect.”
The highly anticipated keynote address followed Obama’s declaration of personal support for marriage equality in an interview last Wednesday with ABC News. He entered the commencement ceremony in New York City to screams from the crowd of about 600 young women and chants of “Yes we can!”
Obama avoided any direct mention of marriage equality in his keynote address, but Barnard president Debora Spar, who presented him with the Medal of Distinction, the school’s highest honor, mentioned his new position in her introduction. “Just days ago you affirmed your belief that the right to marriage belongs to us all,” she told him from the stage.
Obama began his speech by contrasting and comparing the current time to his own Columbia College graduation year of 1983, which was marked by trends like the “moonwalk” and severe economic challenges. He called on the graduates to do their part to address the problems.
“Don’t just get involved, fight for your seat at the table,” he said. “Better yet, fight for your seat at the head of the table.”
The White House offered Obama to speak at Barnard, a women’s college affiliated with Columbia University, in March at the height of the controversy over contraception coverage in the new health care reform law. He geared his speech toward the women’s audience with references to prominent women in his administration and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first piece of legislation he signed in office in 2009.
Obama offered advice including “persevere” and “never underestimate the power of your example.” He also brought some wisdom from first lady Michelle Obama.
"You can be stylish and powerful too," he said. "That's Michelle's advice."
The president’s avoidance of the marriage equality issue contrasted with a speech about “the American culture” delivered Saturday at Liberty University by Mitt Romney. The presumptive Republican presidential nominee received a standing ovation from gradates of the Christian college in Virginia when he said that, “Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman.” Some evangelical Christian leaders have argued that the former Massachusetts governor can consolidate the ambivalent support for him among their ranks by attacking the president’s position.
“The power of these values is evidenced by a Brookings Institution study that Sen. Rick Santorum brought to my attention,” said Romney, invoking a former rival who enjoyed higher popularity among Christian conservatives. “For those who graduate from high school, get a full-time job, and marry before they have their first child, the probability that they will be poor is 2%. But, if those things are absent, 76% will be poor. Culture matters.”
At Barnard, President Obama was joined onstage by Evan Wolfson, founder and president of the national marriage equality advocacy group Freedom to Marry. Both men received the Medal of Distinction, the school’s highest honor. Former New York Court of Appeals chief judge Judith Kaye, a 1958 Barnard graduate, presented the award to Wolfson. In 2006, Judge Kaye authored a dissent against the majority court opinion in the Hernandez v. Robles case that ruled the state constitution did not allow same-sex couples to marry.
“You have turned a once lonely march into a surging national movement,” Kaye said in her introduction. She listed Wolfson’s legal and advocacy work, from his Supreme Court arguments in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale to the marriage equality campaign in New York.
In a news release, Wolfson said that he planned to “thank the president for doing what we elect presidents to do -- showing moral leadership in standing up for freedom, fairness, and families -- and for speaking in such personal terms about the journey he and so many Americans have made to understand who gay families are and why marriage matters.”
The commencement speech marked the president’s second visit to New York in a week. The day before his interview with ABC News’ Robin Roberts, as speculation about his position mounted, he appeared in Albany for an economic development event with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who spearheaded the passage of the marriage equality law in his state last June. Obama told Roberts that upon reflection, he decided that, “if I had been a state senator” during the New York vote, “I think that I would have voted yes.”
According to the Associated Press, President Obama is also scheduled to tape an appearance on ABC’s The View while in New York City, in addition to attending two campaign fund-raisers. One event in Chelsea geared toward LGBT and Latino donors will be headlined by Ricky Martin. Gay bundlers for the Obama campaign have reported a surge in donations since the president made his marriage equality announcement.
Reporting by Julie Bolcer.