I’m not sure how much of a difference it would really make in the end, but I do think it’d be neat to have a president and a team who can write and deliver great speeches with this one wending together a tribute to Ted Kennedy with a call to service for young people:
Each of you will have the chance to make your own discovery in the years to come. And I say “chance” because you won’t have to take it. There’s no community service requirement in the real world; no one forcing you to care. You can take your diploma, walk off this stage, and chase only after the big house and the nice suits and all the other things that our money culture says you should by. You can choose to narrow your concerns and live your life in a way that tries to keep your story separate from America’s.
But I hope you don’t. Not because you have an obligation to those who are less fortunate, though you do have that obligation. Not because you have a debt to all those who helped you get here, though you do have that debt. It’s because you have an obligation to yourself. Because our individual salvation depends on collective salvation. Because thinking only about yourself, fulfilling your immediate wants and needs, betrays a poverty of ambition. Because it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential and discover the role you’ll play in writing the next great chapter in America’s story.
As with many of Obama’s speeches, I think it would be possible to sniff at this one and proclaim it banal. But I think part of the brilliance of Obama’s rhetoric is an ability to elevate important but somewhat banal sentiments, like how cleaning the facade of an old building you’ve passed dozens of times can make you appreciate the architecture in a way you rarely have before.