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Obama tells Howard University graduates to vote ‘not just when it’s cool’

President Obama addresses the 2016 commencement ceremony at Howard University.
(Getty Images)

President Obama was not overtly political about the 2016 election season as he delivered the 148th commencement address at Howard University on Saturday.

But he didn’t need to be.

Woven into his advice to graduates of the historically black college founded two years after the Civil War was a lengthy political to-do list -- including an admonishment for young people to vote.

“You have to go through life with more than just a passion for change, you need a strategy,” Obama said.

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“Your plan better include voting -- not just some of the time, but all of the time.”

Obama criticized barriers that make it tougher for Americans to cast ballots. But he also pointed to low voter turnout in midterm elections, during which Democrats lost majorities in Congress.

“You don’t think that made a difference?” he asked. “Just vote. It’s math: If you have more votes than the other guy, you get to do what you want.”

“You got to vote all the time. Not just when it’s cool.”

The Howard address was the first for Obama this graduation season, and came 51 years years after President Lyndon B. Johnson delivered the last address to Howard graduates by a sitting president.

Obama was greeted with cheers as he arrived on the historic campus, which counts among its alumni Thurgood Marshall, the first African American Supreme Court justice.

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Obama’s address was sprinkled with references to other icons of black history, including Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and James Baldwin.

Alongside actress Cicely Tyson, Obama was awarded an honorary doctoral degree Saturday.

The president opened with what he acknowledged may be a “controversial” statement: “America is a better place today than it was when I graduated college.”

“Stay with me now,” he told the graduates and their families, recalling the early 1980s. “Race relations are better.”

He offered his own election -- actually, his 2012 reelection, he clarified, since voters knew what they were getting -- as evidence.

“My election did not create a post-racial society,” he went on.

“You will have to deal with ignorance, hatred, racism, foolishness, trifling folks,” he said. “I promise you, you will have to deal with all that, at every stage of your life.”

“That may not seem fair,” he went on, but life is not fair. “Nobody promised you a crystal stair.”

But the president urged graduates to listen and engage their adversaries -- noting he disagrees with college campuses that exclude speakers in protest -- and told them that democracy requires compromise, “even when you’re 100% right.”

Obama also warned against a sense of entitlement. “That’s a pet peeve of mine -- people who’ve been successful and don’t realize they’ve been lucky,” he said.

And the president urged empathy for those from all walks of life, including “the middle-aged white guy,” struggling in the changing economy.

“America is big and it’s boisterous and it’s more diverse than ever,” he said.

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But Obama also nodded to a new generation of black civil rights leaders -- on black Twitter and in the Black Lives Matter movement.

The president gave a shout out to superstars, like Beyonce, and intellectual leaders, like the author Ta-Nehisi Coates, a one-time Howard student who rode with Obama in the motorcade from the White House.

Mostly, the father of two daughters told the Class of 2016 to be confident in themselves and their black heritage.

“Think about an icon we just lost: Prince,” Obama said. “He blew up categories .... And folks loved him for it.”

“You need to have the same confidence,” he said. “Or as my daughters tell me all the time: ‘You be you, Daddy.’”

Or, as he said younger daughter Sasha puts it: “‘You do you, Daddy.’”

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lisa.mascaro@latimes.com

Follow on Twitter @LisaMascaro


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