This is it. Really. Only it’s the commencement at Arizona State–a university that decided not to give Obama an honorary degree, in contrast to what Notre Dame will do on Sunday. The honorary degree issue is becoming the favored talking point among many die-hard Notre Dame opponents who seem to want to appear open to Obama speaking but not to “honoring” him with a degree. I don’t see the distinction, really–inviting him as featured commencement speaker is the honor everyone will remember, but perhaps I am slighting the prestige of a commemorative sheepskin.
Anyway, ASU officials apparently drew fire for making that distinction, and they seemed from the New York Times account to be a bit chagrined. But as is becoming the pattern, President Obama turned the issue to his advantage in what strikes me as a clever and gracious speech with a better message than most:
[Mr. Obama] used the controversy to make the point that no one should be satisfied with “the outward markers of success,” either as individuals or as a country.
“I come here not to dispute the suggestion that I haven’t achieved enough in my life,” Mr. Obama told tens of thousands of students and relatives packed into Sun Devil Stadium. “First of all, Michelle concurs with that assessment. She has a long list of things I have not yet done waiting for me when I get home.
“But more than that,” he added, “I come to embrace the notion that I haven’t done enough in my life. I heartily concur. I come to confirm that one’s title, even a title like president of the United States, says very little about how well one’s life has been led — and that no matter how much you’ve done, or how successful you’ve been, there’s always more to do, always more to learn, and always more to achieve.”
The decision not to award an honorary degree to Mr. Obama was taken by many as a snub, especially after university officials explained that “his body of work is yet to come.” Embarrassed university officials tried to contain the damage by renaming its most important financial aid program the President Barack Obama Scholars Program, which will benefit 1,600 freshmen this fall.
The university’s president, Michael Crow, heaped praise on Mr. Obama in introducing him on Wednesday night. “You’ve lit a fire under all of us to move America forward,” Mr. Crow said.
Mr. Obama thanked him and called the controversy “much ado about nothing.” But he still aimed a barb at the university’s leadership. “President Crow and the board of regents will soon learn about being audited by the I.R.S.,” he joked.
Ha ha. But his foes will be furious. I just hope he’s that good this Sunday, though again, there’s not much he can say at this point that will change many minds. So I wonder if he will keep it light and generic. That would be the temptation, and I hope he doesn’t succumb.
Here is some good early WaPo feed off the event as well.