When President Barack Obama takes the podium on Saturday to address the University’s class of 2010, the graduates and their families won’t be the only ones watching.
Though the Big House field may not seem as big of a political stage as the Rose Garden at the White House or the floor of the United States House of Representatives, past presidents have used it to launch policy initiatives and sell their agendas. And according to University professors, Saturday’s speech could offer Obama a similar opportunity.
Associate History Prof. Matt Lassiter said in an interview earlier this week that though he’s unsure of what Obama will say, he wouldn’t be surprised to see the president use the speech as a platform for a larger announcement.
Lassiter added that it would make sense for Obama to follow in the footsteps of other Democratic presidents who used Ann Arbor as a backdrop to launch policy initiatives.
In 1960, John F. Kennedy announced the Peace Corps on the steps of the Michigan Union while campaigning for president, and later in 1964, president Lyndon B. Johnson announced his Great Society program to a crowd of graduates at the Big House.
“There’s a long history of Democrats using Michigan to make really important domestic policy announcements or calls for initiatives,” Lassiter said. “I was wondering if Obama would take the opportunity to try and do something like that … whether he would use the graduation as a vehicle for a big policy talk.”
And the possibility of historical comparison makes the stage all that much grander, Lassiter said.
“His advisors know that the national coverage of the speech will talk about Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson,” he said. “A big policy speech could get a lot of attention partly because it will be compared to the Peace Corps and the War on Poverty.”
Lassiter said he has no idea what the topic of Obama’s speech will be or even if it will involve a big announcement, adding that he doesn’t “want to be a pundit and say something that’s totally wrong.” But he said the commencement address “would be a great moment to talk about national service,” given the University’s history of student activism.
“I would love for a Democratic president to say something like two years of national service … and your college loans are forgiven,” he said. “I have no sense that that’s what he’s going to do but that would be a perfect opportunity.”
“That’s wishful thinking on my part,” he added.
In an interview the night it was announced Obama would be delivering the commencement address, Political Science Prof. Kenneth Kollman said he didn’t know what the topic of Obama’s speech would be. But given the current economic climate Kollman said it would make sense for him to talk about the economy.
“I’m sure he’ll use it as an occasion to make a policy statement and Michigan is certainly a place to talk about transitions from an old economy to a new economy,” he said at the time.
Communications and Political Science Prof. Michael Traugott said in an interview in February that he thinks “there’s a possibility” Obama will use the commencement address to make a big announcement about the economy.
“Michigan would certainly be one of the places to do it,” he said.
Associate History Prof. Matthew Countryman said in an interview last week that he has “no idea” what Obama is going to say in his speech, but whatever he says the president will have to strike a balance between being a visionary and playing politics.
“Whenever the president speaks it’s a fine line between politics and laying out a vision as the leader of the government,” he said. “Commencement addresses are right on that fine line.”
He added that Obama could use the speech for political gain by laying out his “vision for the nation” in advance of the midterm elections in November.
“With the midterm elections coming up certainly there’s an aspect about it that’s about putting his approach in the best light possible,” he said.
But Prof. Charles Shipan, chair of the Political Science Department, said that presidential commencement addresses are always about more than just politics.
“What the president tries to do is he is tries to balance the fact that he’s giving a talk to the graduates but at the same time knows that it’s going to be covered as a political speech too,” he said.
Lassiter said if Obama uses commencement as a stage for a big policy announcement, he’s confident that he’ll be able to do it in a way that will “combine the political and personal,” and achieve a similar tone to Johnson’s announcement of the Great Society.
“If you watch (Johnson’s speech) he’s very much appealing to the graduates themselves, asking them to join him on this mission,” he said.