A Look Back At Some of Obama's Best Commencement Speeches - Black Enterprise

A Look Back At Some of Obama’s Best Commencement Speeches

Barack Obama
President Obama goes over notes in the Red Room prior to a Live Prime Time Press Conference in the East Room of the White House 3/24/09. (Wikimedia/Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.)

Former President Barack Obama was asked by a high school student to be the national commencement speaker for high school and college students across the country.

According to The Grio, Lincoln Debenham, a senior at Los Angeles’ Eagle Rock High School asked Obama via Twitter Tuesday to speak to the Class of 2020. The post quickly went viral and as of Thursday had more than 199,000 likes and 40,000 retweets. The request became so popular, it spawned the hashtag #ObamaCommencement2020.

As it turns out, Obama has a significant amount of experience at the craft.


Obama gave a commencement speech at the women’s liberal arts college in 2012 telling graduates while things may look worse today, they’re built for these tough times.

“No wonder that faith in our institutions has never been lower, particularly when good news doesn’t get the same kind of ratings as bad news anymore. Every day you receive a steady stream of sensationalism and scandal and stories with a message that suggest change isn’t possible; that you can’t make a difference; that you won’t be able to close that gap between life as it is and life as you want it to be.

“My job today is to tell you don’t believe it. Because as tough as things have been, I am convinced you are tougher. I’ve seen your passion and I’ve seen your service,” Obama added. “I’ve seen you engage and I’ve seen you turn out in record numbers.  I’ve heard your voices amplified by creativity and a digital fluency that those of us in older generations can barely comprehend. I’ve seen a generation eager, impatient even, to step into the rushing waters of history and change its course.”


In 2013, Obama gave the commencement speech at Morehouse College and discussed the opportunities students had in front of them that other black men and women in the U.S. don’t.

“If we’re honest with ourselves, we know that too few of our brothers have the opportunities that you’ve had here at Morehouse,” Obama said. “In troubled neighborhoods all across this country—many of them heavily African American—too few of our citizens have role models to guide them.

“Communities just a couple miles from my house in Chicago, communities just a couple miles from here—they’re places where jobs are still too scarce and wages are still too low; where schools are underfunded and violence is pervasive; where too many of our men spend their youth not behind a desk in a classroom, but hanging out on the streets or brooding behind a jail cell.”


Obama spoke at Rutgers University in May 2016, telling graduates that it’s their turn to lead.

“Fortunately, your generation has everything it takes to lead this country toward a brighter future. I’m confident that you can make the right choices—away from fear and division and paralysis, and toward cooperation and innovation and hope,” Obama said. “Now, partly, I’m confident because, on average, you’re smarter and better educated than my generation—although we probably had better penmanship and were certainly better spellers.

“You’re not only better educated, you’ve been more exposed to the world, more exposed to other cultures,” Obama added. “You’re more diverse. You’re more environmentally conscious. You have a healthy skepticism for conventional wisdom. So you’ve got the tools to lead us. And precisely because I have so much confidence in you, I’m not going to spend the remainder of my time telling you exactly how you’re going to make the world better. You’ll figure it out.”


Obama spoke at the Air Force Academy in June 2016 congratulating cadets for making it through a grueling process.

“This Academy is one of the most demanding academic institutions in America. And you have excelled. I’m told you have set at least three Academy records: The largest number of graduates ever to go directly on to graduate school; the largest number of female graduates in Academy history,” Obama said. “You will follow in the footsteps of General Janet Wolfenbarger, who I was proud to nominate as the first female four-star general in Air Force history.

“And of course, your final and perhaps most impressive distinction—breaking the world’s record for the largest game of dodgeball: 3,000 participants, 30 hours. I didn’t know that was possible.” Obama added. “Of course, you are also the class that snuck into the Superintendent’s office and moved all the furniture into your dorm rooms which does bring me to some important business. In keeping with longstanding tradition, I hereby grant amnesty to all cadets serving restrictions and confinements for minor offenses. (Applause.) Of course, I leave it up to General Gould to define minor.”


Obama spoke at Howard University in May 2016 telling students to continue the trend of growing black excellence.

‘America is better. The world is better. And stay with me now—race relations are better since I graduated,” Obama said. “That’s the truth. No, my election did not create a post-racial society. I don’t know who was propagating that notion. But the election itself—and the subsequent one—because the first one, folks might have made a mistake. The second one, they knew what they were getting. The election itself was just one indicator of how attitudes had changed.

“In my inaugural address, I remarked that just 60 years earlier, my father might not have been served in a D.C. restaurant,” Obama added. “There were no black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Very few black judges. Shoot, as Larry Wilmore pointed out last week, a lot of folks didn’t even think blacks had the tools to be a quarterback. Today, former Bull Michael Jordan isn’t just the greatest basketball player of all time—he owns the team.”