Work Is Never Done, Obama Tells Class - NYTimes.com
May 14, 2009
Work Is Never Done, Obama Tells Class
By PETER BAKER
TEMPE, Ariz. — President Obama traveled Wednesday to the university that does not think he has done enough to merit an honorary degree and declared that he agreed.
Mr. Obama delivered his first commencement address as president at Arizona State University, whose decision not to award him a ceremonial diploma touched off a national furor. He used the controversy to make the point that no one should be satisfied with “the outward markers of success,” either as individuals or as a country.
“I come here not to dispute the suggestion that I haven’t achieved enough in my life,” Mr. Obama told tens of thousands of students and relatives packed into Sun Devil Stadium. “First of all, Michelle concurs with that assessment. She has a long list of things I have not yet done waiting for me when I get home.
“But more than that,” he added, “I come to embrace the notion that I haven’t done enough in my life. I heartily concur. I come to confirm 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 — and that no matter how much you’ve done, or how successful you’ve been, there’s always more to do, always more to learn, and always more to achieve.”
The decision not to award an honorary degree to Mr. Obama was taken by many as a snub, especially after university officials explained that “his body of work is yet to come.” Embarrassed university officials tried to contain the damage by renaming its most important financial aid program the President Barack Obama Scholars Program, which will benefit 1,600 freshmen this fall.
The university’s president, Michael Crow, heaped praise on Mr. Obama in introducing him on Wednesday night. “You’ve lit a fire under all of us to move America forward,” Mr. Crow said.
Mr. Obama thanked him and called the controversy “much ado about nothing.” But he still aimed a barb at the university’s leadership. “President Crow and the board of regents will soon learn about being audited by the I.R.S.,” he joked.
Mr. Obama’s commencement season schedule this year has generated more attention than most presidents receive. His plan to speak at the graduation at Notre Dame on Sunday has drawn vociferous protests from anti-abortion leaders who consider it inappropriate for him to be invited to speak at the nation’s most prominent Catholic university.
In his speech here to a stadium full of people who waited hours in temperatures hovering around 100 degrees, Mr. Obama said the degree controversy underscored that the nation needs “a fundamental change of perspective and attitude,” one that values substance over appearance, character over celebrity and wise investments over “get rich quick schemes.”
The country, he suggested, has lost its way. “In recent years, in many ways, we’ve become enamored with our own success, lulled into complacency by our own achievements,” he said, citing the economic crisis. “We started taking shortcuts. We started living on credit, instead of building up savings. We saw businesses focus more on rebranding and repackaging than innovating and developing new ideas that improve our lives.”
He cited Americans who ran the Underground Railroad, fought for worker rights, developed new technology and saved people caught in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. “A whole bunch of them didn’t get honorary degrees,” he said in an ad lib not in the released text, “but they changed the course of history and so can you.”
He added: “That’s 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 over time, over a lifetime, to a lasting legacy.”