There is no bigger graduation headliner than the president of the United States. Commanders-in-chief head off to college campuses each spring to dispense presidential thoughts in exchange for honorary degrees, or the attention of tens of thousands of likely voters in key swing states.
From Yale University to Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, presidents have delivered commencement addresses throughout the nation’s history. The speeches involve policy making and politics, as do the decisions regarding which campuses receive the privilege of hosting a president.
Arizona State University joins in the tradition on Wednesday night.
President Barack Obama will address about 8,000 ASU graduates and tens of thousands of their guests at Sun Devil Stadium. He will also give commencement addresses at the University of Notre Dame on May 17 and at the U.S. Naval Academy on May 22.
Notre Dame has repeatedly welcomed presidents to its graduations, and military academies welcomed more than any other type of institution in higher education. However, Obama’s visit will be a first for an Arizona university.
“Being able to have a president attend your commencement is dramatic and significant, no matter when it occurs,” said Patrick Kenney, ASU’s political science department chairman. “That was just a major feather in the university’s cap to be able to do that.”
It is unknown why Obama chose ASU or what he intends to talk about.
“The details of the speech itself, the issues or topics, have not been released,” said Adam Abrams, a White House spokesman.
Presidents regularly use graduation addresses to set out a sweeping vision.
“A few of you may be wondering what a continent 4,000 miles away has to do with your class and you,” President George H.W. Bush said to the 1990 graduating class at Oklahoma State University, before launching into a lengthy speech on America’s role in Europe.
During election years, presidents running for re-election tend to fine tune their stump speeches.
“Compared to four years ago, there is clearly more opportunity, a much lower deficit, increased access to education, a renewed commitment to a clean environment and safer streets, 85 million new jobs, low inflation, record numbers of new exports in businesses,” President Bill Clinton informed Penn State University’s class of 1996.
Several political observers in Arizona expect that Obama might use the occasion to make a major policy statement.
Jim Pederson, former chairman of the Arizona Democratic Party, predicts Obama will talk about an issue related to the nation’s economic recovery. ASU would serve as a good backdrop, he said, because the state has been particularly hard hit by the recession.
“Hopefully it’s really going to shine a light on this state and cause people to really take a longer look at what’s happening here,” Pederson said.
Kenney said the university would be a natural place to lay out a new national education policy.
With border violence a major concern for the president, Earl de Berge, a Phoenix political pollster, said Obama might discuss relations with Mexico or immigration law.
But it’s all speculation.
“He’s a pretty surprising guy,” de Berge said. “He pretty well talks about what he wants to, when he wants to.”
At this point, the reason Obama chose ASU might prove more important than what he says there. The president is making his second visit to the Grand Canyon State in his first five months in office.
“He is looking to Arizona to move it into the Democratic column in four years,” Kenney said. “Because Arizona looks a lot like Nevada, looks a lot like New Mexico, looks a lot like Colorado and they’d like to have that voting block of the electoral college out of the Southwest.”
Pederson said that after the 2010 Census is complete, he believes Arizona will have more electoral votes than every state west of the Mississippi River except California and Texas.
Few in Washington, D.C., recognize how dramatically the nation’s population has shifted, he said.
“They’re not used to thinking of Arizona as a major power player,” Pederson said, “either in the world of politics or size or whatever measurement you want to use.”