Early in the address, Obama acknowledged “a cheap applause line,” but he was being modest. He didn’t deliver a cheap applause line; he delivered an entire speech of them.
His campaign has been working for months to exploit a gender gap that puts him far ahead of likely GOP rival Mitt Romney among women. But this week’s activities veered into pandering as Obama brazenly flaunted his feminine mystique.
He speculated that “Congress would get a lot more done” with more women. He speculated that, although no women signed the Constitution, “we can assume that there were founding mothers whispering smarter things in the ears of the Founding Fathers.” He announced that “more and more women are outearning their husbands. You’re more than half of our college graduates and master’s graduates and Ph.D.s.” He told them they are “poised to make this the century where women shape not only their own destiny, but the destiny of this nation and of this world.”
And they can look good doing it! “You can be stylish and powerful, too,” he said. “That’s Michelle’s advice.”
There were some ironies in the appearance. When the White House asked Barnard for the commencement speech, the college dumped its original speaker, Jill Abramson. In addition to being an actual woman, Abramson is the first female executive editor of the New York Times.
Obama made no mention of Abramson, but he did mention that he knows the past three Barnard commencement speakers, including Hillary Clinton, whose presidential aspirations Obama dashed. Obama was moved to paraphrase an old adage: “Keep your friends close and your Barnard commencement speakers even closer.”
Barnard President Debora Spar, bestowing a medal on Obama, lauded his support for same-sex marriage and his furthering of “a whole lot smarter world.” More helpful to Obama’s theme was Spar’s praise for his appointment of a “long list of gifted and remarkable women leaders.”
Obama had a list of his own — an itemization of the various things he has done for women, from signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to appointing Susan Rice ambassador to the United Nations. He said his labor secretary was told by her high school guidance counselor that she “should think about becoming a secretary. ... And, lo and behold, Hilda Solis did end up becoming a secretary.”
The young women applauded and cheered lines about “equal pay for equal work,” controlling “decisions about your own health,” and many others. “We are better off when women are treated fairly and equally in every aspect of American life,” Obama told them, urging them to “fight for a seat at the head of the table.”
Obama made a fair and at times inspirational argument, but the tone seemed more suited to campaign than campus, particularly when he, toward the end, lifted lines from his stump speech. “If you’re willing to reach up and close that gap between what America is and what America should be,” he said, raising his voice, “I want you to know that I will be right there with you.”
The president departed — he had to get to Barbara, Whoopi, Joy, Elisabeth, and Sherri — but not before sharing hugs and kisses with the other women onstage.
Dana Milbank writes for the Washington Post.