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Barack Obama’s Commencement Speech Reminds Us What a Real President Sounds Like

We miss you so much.

Former President Barack Obama gave a virtual commencement speech for historically black colleges and universities as part of the “Show Me Your Walk, HBCU Edition” commencement program, where he shared some words of wisdom with the graduating class of 2020. In the seven minute speech, Obama delivered inspiration, humor, and empathy in his speech, which is fairly standard for a man who is one of our greatest living orators.

But it is even more welcome when we consider our current president’s addresses, which are ill-informed, ignorant, mean-spirited, and filled with lies. Hearing Obama’s calming, reassuring tone is a welcome break from the petulant word salad that Trump garbles through every day to our collective exhaustion.

Obama took Trump and his leadership to task in his speech, saying “More than anything, this pandemic has fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they’re doing, … A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge. If the world’s gonna be better, it’s going to be up to you.”

He continued, “You know, all those adults that you used to think were in charge and knew what they were doing, turns out they don’t have all the answers. A lot of them aren’t even asking the right questions.”

Obama’s speech had humor, noting the popularity of Tiger King, the unflattering shape of graduation caps, and the awkwardness of moving back in with your parents while quarantining. But the former president also touched on the systemic racism of our country, with references to the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, and the toll that the pandemic is taking on communities of color.

“A disease like this just spotlights the underlying inequalities and extra burdens that black communities have historically had to deal with in this country. We see it in the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on our communities,” Obama said. “Just as we see it when a black man goes for a jog and some folks feel like they can stop and question and shoot him if he doesn’t submit to their questioning. Injustice like this isn’t new.”

The former president ended his speech with three pieces of advice: don’t be afraid, do what you think is right, and build a community. He reminded the audience that this country has gone through tough times before, but we’ve come out the other side.He also gave a stirring quote about doing the right thing, saying “I hope that … you decide to ground yourself in values that last, like honesty, hard work, responsibility, fairness, generosity, respect for others. You won’t get it right every time, you’ll make mistakes like we all do. But if you listen to the truth that’s inside yourself, even when it’s hard, even when it’s inconvenient, people will notice. They’ll gravitate towards you. And you’ll be part of the solution instead of part of the problem.”

He also urged listeners to defend each other, saying “Stand up for one another’s rights. Leave behind all the old ways of thinking that divide us — sexism, racial prejudice, status, greed — and set the world on a different path.”

It’s simple yet thoughtful advice, that becomes all the more remarkable when you consider that Trump possesses none of these qualities. And he’s furious that Obama does so effortlessly. Obama celebrates the graduates and makes them the subject of his speech, something Trump is incapable of doing.

One of the worst things about the election of Trump was that it gave people permission to be their very worst selves. Trump’s relationship with America is like any toxic relationship: it strips us of our dignity, and makes us unrecognizable. It divides us by turning us against one another. Obama’s speech is a bracing reminder of what we can be when we put our best foot forward, when we rise to meet the challenges instead of running away. Obama’s speech reminds us that when we work together, we can achieve great things.

Now that’s what a president does.

(via NPR, image: screencap/NBC News)

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Chelsea was born and raised in New Orleans, which explains her affinity for cheesy grits and Britney Spears. An pop culture journalist since 2012, her work has appeared on Autostraddle, AfterEllen, and more. Her beats include queer popular culture, film, television, republican clownery, and the unwavering belief that 'The Long Kiss Goodnight' is the greatest movie ever made. She currently resides in sunny Los Angeles, with her husband, 2 sons, and one poorly behaved rescue dog. She is a former roller derby girl and a black belt in Judo, so she is not to be trifled with. She loves the word “Jewess” and wishes more people used it to describe her.