Tuesday, May 19, 2020


It is generally accepted that the role of graduation speakers each year is to provide hope and optimism while discussing the future of those graduating. Graduates are told the conclusion of their academic career is the beginning of a new chapter in life. The speaker typically offers advice on success, an anecdotal story or two and an upbeat view of what is possible.

The coronavirus has thrown a curveball into graduation ceremonies from coast to coast. Virtually all are being done, well … virtually. Sitting in one’s living room with a cap and gown on, waiting for an administrator to read your name on the phone or TV screen lacks much of the excitement that graduations usually bring. Trying to celebrate this lifetime milestone has been challenging for many.

For some however, it brought a memorable moment that would not have occurred without COVID-19. Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) got together this year and planned a very special treat for their graduates. HBCUs are made up of 78 schools and had nearly 27,000 graduates in 2020. Normally they would celebrate 78 separate ceremonies but due to the unprecedented circumstances this year, the schools joined together and managed to land the 44th president of the United States as their commencement speaker.

Barack Obama famously won the White House on a theme of hope and change. That same theme would seem to be ideal for young men and women about to dive into the deep end of life’s vast pool during these particularly turbulent times. Regardless of your politics, having a living president of the United States offer advice on this important occasion should surely be a treat for everyone.

But was it?

Rather than steer his comments toward hope for the future and the positive accomplishments graduates can achieve, rather than a unifying message bringing together Americans everywhere, Mr. Obama chose to use the occasion to deliver a message of division, criticism and destruction.

The former president took pot shots at the current administration. “More than anything this pandemic has fully torn back the curtain on the idea that so many folks in charge know what they’re doing.” He continued, “A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge.”

Let me toss out a couple of examples of folks in charge not know what they are doing. Going to a political fundraiser in Las Vegas just hours after a U.S. ambassador was killed in Benghazi, Libya, would be one. Secretly sending $1.7 billion in cash on pallets in cargo planes to Iran under the cover of darkness would be another.

By pretending to be in charge perhaps Mr. Obama meant threatening a red line in the sand, that he ultimately and famously turned tail and ran from.

Mr. Obama’s decision to use a normally joy filled occasion to try and tear down a political opponent and instead be divisive should surprise no one. Despite his smooth delivery, Mr. Obama has always taken glee in sowing the seeds of discontent. Few presidents have divided our nation the way Barack Obama did.

According to Gallup, when Mr. Obama was sworn into office 22% of Americans felt race relations were somewhat poor or very poor. When Mr. Obama left office after eight years, Gallup reported that 55% of Americans felt race relations were somewhat poor or very poor. He had successfully divided our nation by race. He also divided us by income, by gender, by sexuality and a variety of other means.

Standing up for the underdog is admirable. Helping someone who has been unfairly marginalized by society get a fair opportunity is a very good thing. Setting up a false dichotomy however, that somehow pits people against each other, is not. Mr. Obama repeatedly sold the story that if corporations were succeeding, it must be bad for the little guy. He told us that if one race did well it must be at the expense of another.

The 44th president was the champion of sketching out a vision of good vs. evil, except in his world, if the single black mom was good, the white male in society must be evil. If the factory worker with three kids is a good guy, the men that built and owned the factory were bad. If Mr. Obama shared a story of a likable gay man, his twisted logic told us the Catholic nun must be evil.

Such absolutes are in and of themselves evil. They are divisive. They make Americans needlessly turn against Americans.

Mr. Obama once talked about a “wise American tradition” where retired elder statesmen stay out of the fray and refrain from criticizing the sitting president. The media frequently repeats this quote as a way of providing him cover - and then immediately goes on to report whatever his latest criticism actually is. His graduation comments were no anomaly.

A week before the HBCU commencement ceremony, Mr. Obama was on a conference call with 3,000 people who served in his administration. Advertised as a private event, word leaked out immediately that Obama referred to the US response to the coronavirus pandemic as an “absolute chaotic disaster.”

Back in March the former president tweeted to his 11.4 million followers that Americans should demand better of our government. In September 2018, Mr. Obama called on young voters to “restore some semblance of sanity to our politics.”

The point is that despite uttering the words of the “wise American tradition” Mr. Obama has never followed them. He chooses the moments when he believes his comments will have maximum impact and he lets it fly.

Mr. Obama can’t resist the opportunity to divide people. Even at a time as joyous as graduation, even at a time as scary as a worldwide pandemic he has no interest in unifying people. He is instead drawn to the evil of perpetually dividing our nation.

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