President Obama said the U.S. has grown complacent as a dominant military and economic power, forgetting important ideals in the rush to accumulate wealth and position through reckless “shortcuts.”
Speaking at Arizona State University’s graduation ceremony Wednesday night, the president used the nation’s moral arc as a metaphor to urge students not to be satisfied with shallow measures of success.
“In recent years, in many ways, we’ve become enamored with our own success -- lulled into complacency by our own achievements,” Obama told a crowd of more than 60,000 at Sun Devil Stadium. “We’ve become accustomed to the title of military superpower, forgetting the qualities that got us there -- not just the power of our weapons, but the . . . valor and code of conduct of the men and women in uniform.”
He made approving mention of the Marshall Plan and the Peace Corps, two earlier American efforts to rebuild parts of the world devastated by World War II and poverty.
“We’ve become accustomed to our economic dominance in the world, forgetting that it wasn’t reckless deals and get-rich-quick schemes that got us there, but hard work and smart ideas -- quality products and wise investments,” Obama said. “So we started taking shortcuts. We started living on credit, instead of building up savings.”
The crowd stood and roared when the president, wearing academic robes, entered the stadium and took his place on stage. Flashbulbs popped throughout his speech, which was also accompanied by thunderous applause.
Obama referred to an earlier dust-up over his not receiving an honorary degree from Arizona State. One university official had said the president hadn’t compiled an adequate “body of work” to merit a degree. Obama made repeated reference to that phrase and acknowledged that his work was unfinished.
Urging students to continually push themselves, Obama said that he too wouldn’t be complacent. Drawing a contrast between two presidents from the 19th century, he said: “If you think about Abraham Lincoln and Millard Fillmore, they had the very same title. They were both president of the United States. But their tenure in office -- and their legacy -- could not be more different.”
Americans risk being overtaken if they grow self-satisfied, he said, pointing to competition from other countries: “All the while, the rest of the world has grown hungrier and more restless -- in constant motion to build and discover -- not content with where they are right now, determined to strive for more. They’re coming!”
Obama urged the students to pursue alternative careers, as he did before entering politics. A defining experience for him was his stint as a community organizer in Chicago.
“With a degree from this university, you have everything you need to get started,” he said. “Did you study business?” He suggested going out and helping “struggling nonprofits find better, more effective ways to serve folks in need.”
“You study nursing?” he continued. Applause boomed from the football field. “Understaffed clinics and hospitals across this country are desperate for your help. You study education? Teach in a high-need school, where the kids really need you.”
After his speech, Obama took his place in a row of academic officials and shook hands with graduates as their names were called and they filed onstage. About 9,000 received degrees.
The visit was Obama’s second to Arizona since he was sworn in Jan. 20. Although he lost the state to Arizona Sen. John McCain, in November, Obama’s political strategists hope to capture it in 2012.
The president’s appearance Wednesday night was the first of three graduation speeches he is to deliver over the next week and a half. He is to speak at the University of Notre Dame on Sunday and at the U.S. Naval Academy on May 22.
His appearance at Notre Dame has sparked a backlash because of his support for abortion rights. Ten priests, 71 bishops and more than 350,000 Roman Catholics have demanded that the school rescind its invitation.
But his reception in Arizona was warm, and not just because of the weather, which hovered near 100 degrees.
Obama opened his speech with a joke about his predictions in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. He’d picked Temple to beat Arizona State in the first round, but the Sun Devils won (only to lose to Syracuse in the second round).
“I learned to never again pick another team over the Sun Devils in my NCAA bracket,” he said. “And your university president and Board of Regents will soon learn all about being audited by the IRS.”
The crowd roared.
Before the ceremony, rock legend Alice Cooper entertained the crowd with a performance of his 1972 hit, “School’s Out.”
Cooper spoke to reporters in the press box beforehand.
Asked about Obama’s performance as president thus far, Cooper said: “He’s great. He’s a rock star. You go to Europe and he’s a rock star, and I think that’s what the States need right now is a shot in the arm. Some kind of new image.”
Would any of Cooper’s songs work as a campaign anthem for the president? Cooper thought for a second. “How about ‘Welcome to My Nightmare’? That’s a good one.”