While his immediate audience was the 600-member Barnard College class of 2012, the commencement speech President Obama delivered on Monday was clearly aimed at an even bigger group –- all women voters, an essential voting bloc for his re-election bid.
The president empathized with the all-women class over their professional and personal challenges, including issues like fair pay and access to contraception. He also criticized Congress, spotlighting the ever-popular women in his life and sharing his own personal story.
“As young women, you're also going to grapple with some unique challenges like whether you’ll be able to earn equal pay for equal work. Whether you’ll be able to balance the demands of your job with your family. Whether you’ll be able to fully control decisions about your own health,” the president said.
He suggested that the lives of all Americans are improved when women are afforded those abilities.
“Indeed, we know we are better off when women are treated fairly and equally in every aspect of American life, whether it's the salary you earn or the health decisions you make.”
Obama said he had confidence in the graduates because, in a statement that seemed geared more towards his 2008 supporters, he’s seen them “engage and turn out in record numbers.”
“As tough as things have been, I am convinced that you are tougher,” he continued. “I've seen your passion and your service.”
Obama’s re-election chances could very well hinge on whether women turn out and vote for him in November. In 2008, according to the exit polls, the president beat John McCain by seven percentage points among all women. A recent NBC/WSJ poll showed Obama leading presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney among female voters by 12 points.
Obama’s three-pronged advice for the graduating women began with the entreaty to not just get involved but “fight for your seat at the table.”
Alluding to the recent congressional spats over women’s access to contraceptive care, the president suggested that the issue may have been nipped in the bud were more women seated in Capitol Hill offices.
“One reason we're actually re-fighting long-settled battles over women's rights is because women occupy fewer than one in five seats in Congress,” he said. “I'm not saying that the only way to achieve success is by climbing to the top of the corporate ladder or running for office, although -- let's face it -- Congress would get a lot more done if you did,” he continued, as the graduates chuckled.
In urging the graduates to lead by example – his second piece of advice – the president highlighted the women in his life, especially his wife Michelle.
He praised her ability to keep up a career and family, as well as the ability to balance the latter with a political persona.
“The reason Michelle had the strength to juggle everything and put up with me and eventually the public spotlight was because she, too, came from a family of folks who didn't quit,” he said.
And the third bullet point of his advice – perseverance – gave the president an opportunity to relay his own personal story, to which so many voters were drawn during his last campaign.
He shared how his first meeting as a community organizer ended up with no attendees besides a few elderly women looking for the bingo game, and how his band of volunteers may have quit if it hadn’t been for his admonition to forge ahead.
“I said to the volunteers: Before you quit, answer one question. What will happen to those boys if you quit?” he asked, gesturing to some boys aimlessly throwing rocks outside. “Who will fight for them if we don't? Who will give them a fair shot if we leave?”
He added that it was those “small victories” that continued to push him into the “bigger victories of my last three and a half years as president.”