From NBC's Christopher Wilson
As reported here on First Read Friday, President Obama will be speaking at the University of Notre Dame commencement ceremony on May 17th. While the president will also be speaking at the Naval Academy and Arizona State, those appearances haven't caused as much uproar as his trip to South Bend, Ind.
In today's edition of the student newspaper, The Observer, letters to the editor, which are usually reserved for debates over the color of The Shirt or whether it's proper to chant "Sucks" at sporting events -- was expanded to cover a lively debate over whether Obama should be speaking.
"Obama choice unacceptable," read one headline, and "Obama a disgrace" shouted another.
The point of contention? The president's record on issues related to abortion, the majority of which clash with the strict anti-abortion stance of the Catholic Church. An online petition has sprung up urging people to voice their complaints to Father John Jenkins, president of the university.
Jenkins said in an interview with the student paper Monday that while there are clear differences between the president and the Catholic church on some issues (abortion and embryonic stem cell research), it was a great honor to have the president accept the university's offer and that he had no plans to rescind the offer.
A majority of the student body is enthusiastic about President Obama coming to speak -- he won the campus' mock election 52.6% to 41.1% over Sen. John McCain -- but an active alumni base that skews more conservative than the increasingly liberal campus has been vocal about the selection of the commencement speaker.
"Notre Dame students generally come from conservative backgrounds," said Mike Laskey, a recent Notre Dame graduate who wrote on the subject of ideological shifts among the student body in his position as executive director of Scholastic, Notre Dame's campus magazine. "A good college education anywhere introduces new ways of looking at the world and shakes up students' perspectives. Because students come in conservative but not strongly formed, it makes sense that many experience an ideological shift to the left."
The president's decision to speak at Notre Dame also highlights the growing importance of northern Indiana in national politics. In the 2004 election, former President George W. Bush defeated Sen. John Kerry by two points in St. Joseph's County (where Notre Dame is located).
In 2008, Obama defeated McCain by 17 points, helping the Hoosier State go blue for the first time since 1968. *** Correction *** Democrats last won Indiana in 1964.
When President Obama wanted to hold a town hall on the economy to discuss his stimulus package, he visited Elkhart, an Indiana town 15 miles from the Fightin' Irish campus.
In March 2005, President George W. Bush began a tour to garner support for his social security privatization plan by stopping in at the Joyce Center, the on-campus arena where Notre Dame graduations are held. President Obama will be continuing the tradition of five other sitting presidents to speak at the Notre Dame commencement ceremony, following Dwight D. Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. Reagan's speech in May 1981 was his first public appearance after a March assassination attempt, while President George W. Bush gave his first commencement address as president in 2001.
"We are not ignoring the critical issue of the protection of life," Jenkins told campus paper. "On the contrary, we invited him, because we care so much about those issues, and we hope … for this to be the basis of an engagement with him."
Despite the protests by some, it's worth pointing out that Obama won Catholics 54%-45% in the 2008 general election. Bush won them, 52%-47%, in 2004 over Kerry, a Catholic.