IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Obama says his, graduates' best work ahead

In a commencement speech to a stadium full of young graduates at Arizona State University, President Obama told the audience to keep striving and never rely on past achievement.
Image: Barack Obama
President Barack Obama didn't shy away from the "snub" from Arizona State University officials who said he didn't deserve an honorary degree,  at the commencement ceremony in Tempe, Ariz., Wednesday, May 13. Charles Dharapak / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

President Barack Obama didn't shy away from the "snub" by Arizona State University officials who said he hadn't accomplished enough yet to earn an honorary degree. In a commencement speech Wednesday to a stadium full of young graduates, he said the officials were right.

"I come here not to dispute the suggestion that I haven't yet achieved enough in my life," Obama said. With a smile he added: "First of all, (first lady) Michelle (Obama) concurs with that assessment. She has a long list of things that I have not yet done waiting for me when I get home."

"But more than that I come to embrace the notion that I haven't done enough in my life. I heartily concur," the president said. "I come to affirm 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."

Obama challenged the graduating class to find new sources of energy, improve failing schools and never to rely on past achievement. He congratulated them on earning a degree, and said the next steps mattered more than a piece of paper or a tassel.

"I want to say to you today, graduates, class of 2009, that despite having achieved a remarkable milestone in your life — despite the fact that you and your families are so rightfully proud — you, too, cannot rest on your laurels. ... Your own body of work is also yet to come," the president said, wearing a black gown with red embellishments and a blue color.

'Body of work is yet to come'
Commencement speakers typically are awarded honorary degrees as a sign of respect and appreciation. Arizona State officials, however, did not award any such degrees this year.

"His body of work is yet to come. That's why we're not recognizing him with a degree at the beginning of his presidency," university spokeswoman Sharon Keeler said after the school's student newspaper first reported the decision.

To quell the controversy, the university instead renamed a scholarship for the nation's 44th president. At the beginning of his remarks, Obama thanked the school for the gesture.

He also met six recipients of the scholarship named for him and commissioned a group of Army and Air Force cadets.

While the dispute over Obama's honorary degree colored the buildup to the ceremony, a sweltering — and packed — Sun Devil Stadium seemed to care little. About 63,000 people crowded into the stadium to send 9,000 students into a marketplace that has lost 1.3 million jobs since February.

An official at the university's emergency operations center said about 95 people were treated for heat-related illness in 100-degree temperatures while waiting for Obama's address. None of the illnesses were considered life-threatening.

Graduates face difficult economy
Obama acknowledged that the graduates were leaving college during a difficult economic time, a period that has shaped the first months of his presidency. He suggested that leaving college campuses for a job market was, in many ways, a privilege.

"Because it's moments like these that force us to try harder and dig deeper and to discover gifts we never knew we had — to find the greatness that lies within each of us. So don't ever shy away from that endeavor," Obama said during a speech that invoked the bravery firefighters demonstrated on Sept. 11, 2001, and the civil rights movement.

"Don't stop adding to your body of work."

Obama said it opens an opportunity for not only the individuals, but also the country.

"As a nation, we'll need a fundamental change of perspective and attitude," he said. "It's clear that we need to build a new foundation — a stronger foundation — for our economy and our prosperity, rethinking how we grow our economy, how we use energy, how we educate our children, how we care for our sick, how we treat our environment."

Obama was to fly to Albuquerque, N.M., after the speech. The president planned a town hall-style meeting there Thursday on proposed restrictions on credit card companies.

Obama plans commencement addresses Sunday at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., and the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

Protests were expected at Notre Dame, a Roman Catholic school, over Obama's support for abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research.