Former President Barack Obama delivered two online commencement addresses on Saturday that did more than offer words of inspiration for the graduates – he reminded us of what a US President should sound like.
In these two speeches – one to those graduating from high schools and the other to those graduating from historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) – he urged people to be selfless, to work together to help those in need and to reject divisiveness. What a contrast to Donald Trump’s almost daily message of pitting Americans against each other, his lack of empathy and his trademark philosophy of “It’s all about me.”
Comparing Obama and Trump, though, is unfair on some level. Obama is everything Trump will never be: Compassionate, thoughtful, intellectually curious, honest and highly intelligent. Obama’s commencement speeches simply reminded of us that very fact.
For starters, Obama didn’t make his addresses about himself or his own grievances; his focus was on those graduating. What a contrast to Trump’s 2017 commencement address to the US Coast Guard Academy where he told the graduates, “Look at the way I’ve been treated lately, especially by the media. No politician in history – and I say this with great surety – has been treated worse or more unfairly.” To Trump, every day – even your graduation day – is about Trump.
Beyond that, various statements from Obama’s two speeches – while not mentioning Trump by name – were in my view a plea to reject Trumpism, which I define as a celebration of selfishness, bigotry, cruelty and divisiveness.
One part of Obama’s speech from “Graduate Together: America Honors the High School Class of 2020,” that especially jumped out as a contrast to Trump is when the former President stated, “Doing what feels good, what’s convenient, what’s easy – that’s how little kids think.” He added, “Unfortunately, a lot of so-called grown-ups, including some with fancy titles and important jobs, still think that way – which is why things are so screwed up.”
Trump is the poster child for take the easy way out of a situation that demands a long-term, thoughtful approach. We’ve seen this recently during the coronavirus pandemic as Trump pushed for miracle cures from the virus – from suggesting ingestion of disinfectant to telling us in February that the virus will, “One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”
Obama implored the high school graduates “to ground yourself in values that last, like honesty, hard work, responsibility, fairness, generosity, respect for others.” When is the last time you heard Trump urge Americans to be generous or to “respect” others? Instead we see the opposite from him, as happened again over this weekend when Trump tweeted a video of his self-professed supporters yelling at and even cursing at a reporter who was covering an anti-lock down protest. These protesters were “great people,” Trump wrote.
During Obama’s speech to the HBCU graduates he also urged a rejection of selfishness, telling the audience, “So rather than say, ‘What’s in it for me? What’s in it for my community? And to heck with everyone else,’ stand up for and join up with everyone who’s struggling.” He then listed various communities such as immigrants, racial minorities, refugees and the LGBTQ community that need support.
Trump, by contrast, is the “What’s in it for me?” President. Just look at his Twitter feed on any given day. It’s littered with tweets about how he’s being treated unfairly or how others have wronged him from the news media to the “Deep State” to “Saturday Night Live.” You name it and Trump has whined that they are unfair to him.
Trump has by design divided Americans – because he believes it helps him politically – by either demonizing or implementing policies that target some of the very groups Obama urged people to unite to support. We’ve seen that from the time Trump came down the escalator to kick off his campaign in June 2015 with his demonization of Mexican immigrants to his time as President trying to implement polices that discriminate against the LGBTQ community.
In both graduation speeches, Obama urged people to work together for positive change in our nation. The former President told the high school grads, “build a community. No one does big things by themselves” while telling the high school students, “you can’t do it alone. Meaningful change requires allies in common cause.”
What did Trump tell us about the problems facing our nation when giving his speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention? “I alone can fix it.” To Trump, it’s always about “I,” “me” and what can you do to help me.
Listening to Obama made me dream of the day when we can again have a President who is compassionate and thoughtful. One who appeals to our better angels as opposed to trying to divide us. One who represents the best of American values, not the worst of selfishness and cruelty. A President who when he speaks, makes us proud. And come January 20, 2021, my hope is that such a dream becomes a reality.