Obama's ASU Commencement Speech Urges Community Involvement, Uses Flap Over Honorary Degree to Make Point

 President Barack Obama deftly turned an embarrassment for Arizona State University into a theme for his commencement speech on Wednesday, urging students to never stop "adding to your body of work."

The reference was to a statement made by ASU spokeswoman Sharon Keeler when asked why the university was not giving Obama an honorary degree. During the speech at ASU's Sun Devil Stadium, which was packed near capacity, Obama said controversy over ASU's decision about the degree was "much ado about nothing," and that he did not come to "dispute the suggestion that I haven't acheived enough in my life."

Michelle Obama certainly has long list of things she expects him to do, he quipped.

The president thanked ASU heartily for naming a financial aid program after him.

"I hope this program will serve as a model for universities across the country, so thank you very much," he said.

Obama noted that the nation is facing major problems, from the economy -- "we spent beyond our means"-- to a pair of ongoing wars, nuclear proliferation, and climate change. He recalled great American leaders, noting that some had never received an honorary degree. He encouraged students to take the example of historical figures who worked for the good of the country.

The "formulas of the past" in which success was measured by material things and "ruthless competition on your own behalf" should be discarded, he told the 2009 graduates and others in attendance.

"Such an approach won't get you where you want to go," he said. "It shows a poverty of ambition."

As counter-examples, he suggested graduates in business could help a non-profit, education majors could teach needy children, and engineers could "help us lead a green revolution."

Much of his speech alluded to generic ideals such as "building a stronger foundation." Among his few specific pointers, Obama told graduates to be prepared to work in more than one career field in their lifetimes, and obtain multiple degrees.

Obama made a tongue-in-cheek apology for taking away "your wonderful, former governor," Janet Napolitano, and making her the Homeland Security Secretary. (He's also reportedly considering her as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice nominee).

In a joke that got the biggest laughs of the evening, the president ribbed ASU President Michael Crow over his bad pick in college basketball's finals:

I learned to never again pick another team over the Sun Devils in my NCAA bracket. And your university President and Board of Regents will soon learn all about being audited by the IRS.

All in all, Obama's latest Valley gig seemed to go well, though his speech -- originally slated for 7 p.m. -- was nearly an hour late (Actually, it appears to have been on time despite several media reports that the speech would begin at 7 p.m. No tardy slip for Obama).

One minor problem was the triple-digit temperatures, which caused dozens of people to fall ill as they waited for hours in the sun.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.