In ASU Speech, Obama Calls Upon Students to Seek Lasting Achievement
By Michael D. Shear
President Obama told students at Arizona State University that they are graduating at an uncertain and challenging time for the country, but urged them to reject the old formulas for success and shape a new future for their generation.
Speaking at the aptly-named Sun Devil Stadium in 98-degree heat at just after 7 p.m., Obama told about 60,000 people that the country's economic slump will be overcome by the kind of innovation that the graduates represent.
"I know starting your careers in troubled times is a challenge. But it is also a privilege," he said. "Because it is moments like these that force us to try harder, to dig deeper, to discover gifts we never knew we had -- to find the greatness that lies within each of us."
Obama's appearance at the university followed a minor controversy that erupted when the school decided against conferring an honorary degree on the new president during today's ceremony.
Despite having given such an honor to many politicians, the school spokesman said initially that Obama had not established a "body of work" that would qualify him for a degree.
Obama, a graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Law Scool, is the country's first African American president, a fact that many critics of the school say should have immediately made him a candidate for the honorary degree.
The school's president stuck to the decision, but said the school has had a policy since 2003 of not giving honorary degrees to sitting politicians. Instead, the school will name its largest scholarship program after Obama.
Obama joked about the controversy.
"I have to tell you, I really thought it was much ado about nothing, but I think we all learned an important lesson," he said. "I learned to never again pick another team over the Sun Devils in my NCAA bracket. It won't happen again. And President Crow and the Board of Regents will soon learn all about being audited by the IRS."
And later he appeared to tweak the school by discussing the need for graduates to make their mark in the world in large and small ways. "That is what building a body of work is all about -- it's about the daily labor, the many individual acts, the choices large and small
that add up to a lasting legacy," he told the crowd.
Obama's advice to the 9,000 graduates was to ignore the "brass rings" that many of them had been taught to seek: money, status, titles. Instead, he urged them to reject "the elevation of appearance over substance, celebrity over character, short-term gain over lasting achievement."
Returning the a populist theme that worked for him during the campaign, the president sneered at the pursuit of wealth and said it was greed that has caused many of the country's problems.
"The trappings of success may be a by-product of this larger mission, but they can't be the central thing," he said. "Just ask Bernie Madoff."
Obama said the country is pinning its hopes for the future on a new generation that will return to the values of people who helped desegregate the South, firefighters who helped save lives during 9-11 and entrepreneurs who sparked the internet revolution.
"That is the great American story: young people just like you, following their passions, determined to meet the times on their own terms," he said. "They weren't doing it for the money. Their titles weren't fancy -- ex-slave, minister, student, citizen. A whole bunch of them didn't get honorary degrees. But they changed the course of history -- and so can you."
Posted at 11:04 PM ET on May 13, 2009
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