Often, it is the symbolic gesture that creates the most impact. Take President Obama's choices of what commencement invitations to accept this spring. He could have soaked up adulation at any Ivy League school, but passed up such opportunities, and instead chose to speak at Arizona State, Notre Dame, and the Naval Academy. Obama took the risk of controversy and protests at these schools, in order to reach out to conservative elements of academia. Instead of ignoring the controversy at Arizona State about whether he had accomplished enough to merit an honorary degree, Obama cleverly worked that theme into his speech, telling the students that both he and they still have much left to achieve. Here is what he said:
"I come here not to dispute the suggestion that I haven't yet achieved enough in my life. I come to embrace it; to heartily concur; to affirm that one's title, even a title like President, says very little about how well one's life has been led - and that no matter how much you've done, or how successful you've been, there's always more to do, more to learn, more to achieve.
And I want to say to you today, graduates, that despite having achieved a remarkable milestone, one that you and your families are rightfully proud of, you too cannot rest on your laurels. Your body of work is yet to come."
So here is further evidence of the president's political genius. If people wonder why health care reform seems likely to pass this year, it will be because messages like these help melt opposition away.
By contrast, George W. Bush notably missed opportunities to reach out to opponents. Although he did give a commencement address at Yale in 2001, that was his alma mater and therefore had to treat him politely. Otherwise, he tended to stay close to his base. Here are some other schools where George W. Bush gave commencement addresses:
Coast Guard Academy
Ohio State University
US Air Force Academy
US Naval Academy
Oklahoma State University
Does this mean that the liberal elite institutions will always be ignored at graduation time, regardless of whether the Democrats or Republicans are in power?