Obama's Message to Grads a Preview of Final Stump Speech

The president says America is 'better off than when I took office'

President Barack Obama, seen here at Rutgers University on May 15, has been previewing campaign-trail themes in his commencement addresses. (Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama  is sending college graduates an upbeat message about the state of the nation, previewing campaign-trail rhetoric he intends to use closer to the elections that runs counter to the frustrations of many Americans.  

Presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump often uses his stump speeches to portray the United States as enfeebled and to promise to bring jobs back from overseas. Sen. Bernie Sanders , Hillary Clinton ’s Democratic primary irritant, invokes class distinctions, warning “the rich get richer, and everyone else gets poorer.”  

Without naming either White House hopeful, Obama is crisscrossing the country delivering a sweeping critique of the gloom-and-doom campaign style to new college graduates — just the voters Clinton and other Democratic candidates need to turn out come Nov. 8. The question is whether the message will do more to fortify his legacy than help Democrats gain seats in Congress.  

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The most recent Gallup tracking poll puts Obama's approval rating at 52 percent, suggesting Americans are willing to hear him out. But Gallup’s “economic confidence” trend line has been on a mostly downward trajectory since January 2015, standing at -12 in the latest incarnation after hitting a yearly low (-16) only several weeks before.  

“Obama’s is a status quo message,” said Brad Bannon , a Democratic consultant. “I don’t think it’s going to resonate with middle-class voters.”  

On Wednesday, Obama headed to Elkhart, Indiana , the first city he visited as president in February 2009, where he said Republican claims about a failing economy and gloomy state of the country have "made people cynical about government."

He blasted a Trump economic cornerstone, saying his tax plan will "explode our deficits" and "help people like him" rather than middle-class Americans. Those remarks amplified Obama's criticism of Trump's “Make America Great Again” campaign theme.

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“When you hear someone longing for the ‘good old days,’ take it with a grain of salt,” Obama said at Rutgers University on May 15. “We live in a great nation and we are rightly proud of our history.” The president went on to laud Americans’ penchant for “labor,” and the “grit and the courage of generations who came before.”  

But on the notion that America’s yesteryears were better than current times or those ahead, Obama bluntly said: “It ain’t so. The ‘good old days’ weren’t that great.”  

The outgoing president has been a lightning rod since taking office in January 2009, especially to conservatives. And he knows his final round of campaign appearances will bring more criticism , as he acknowledged to graduates at Washington’s Howard University on May 7.  

“Given the current state of our political rhetoric and debate, let me say something that may be controversial, and that is this: America is a better place today than it was when I graduated from college ... by almost every measure,” he said.  

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Obama has also been telling young voters that the state of the economy and that of the country as a whole is “better off than when I took office.”  

The president has used 1983, the year he graduated from Columbia, as a point of comparison. He noted that the country was then just coming out of economic doldrums, many cities were in financial trouble, foreign oil had a “stranglehold” on the nation, unemployment was near 11 percent and the American auto industry “was getting its clock cleaned.”  

At both Howard and Rutgers, Obama  cited statistics to portray the United States as being on the ascendant again.  

Crime, poverty and teen pregnancy rates are all “down,” Obama said. So are African-American dropout rates, while the number of blacks with college degrees has more than doubled since 1983. Cities “have undergone a renaissance” and women are working more and earning more when they do, he said, noting almost everyone in the Howard crowd had “a computer in your pocket that gives you the world at the touch of a button.”  

“America is better,” Obama said. “The world is better. … Race relations are better since I graduated. That’s the truth.”  

Bannon, the Democratic strategist, said Obama — like other two-term presidents — seems torn between promoting himself and embracing a stump speech that will help his party retain the White House and make gains in other national, state and local races.  

“I’m not surprised this is going to be his message. In the 2014 midterms , the White House’s message was: ‘We’ve got a long way to go, but we’re better off,’” Bannon said. “I think it was an ineffective message then, and it’ll be an ineffective message this time.”  

[ Obama Says World Leaders 'Rattled' by Trump's 'Ignorance of World Affairs' ]  

Marc Hetherington, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, said Obama’s emerging campaign message “makes sense” for his legacy and for Clinton as she moves closer to securing the Democratic nomination.  

“She has embraced his leadership and policies,” he said of Obama’s first-term secretary of State, “so she cannot exactly argue that times are bad.”  

“As we move into the general election, the country is just so restless,” Hetherington said. “These kinds of elections typically are a referendum on the governing party. So the Democrats need a counter-message to the one that Donald Trump has so effectively put out there that America is not great right now.”  

Contact Bennett at johnbennett@cqrollcall.com. Follow him on Twitter @BennettJohnT .  

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