Everyone’s lives have been dramatically and unexpectedly affected by the pandemic, among them student graduates, who expected a formal ceremony filled with pomp and circumstance and maybe even a splashy speech by a celebrity speaker. They didn’t get the former, but everyone at least got the latter — and many times over at that. Famous people from all walks of life have been dropping by virtual graduation ceremonies; last week, Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter even saluted the class of the school from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
On Sunday YouTube hosted a “Dear Class of 2020” hoedown, featuring a number of well-known speakers, trying to impart hope in despairing times. Among the most famous of those was a certain president, Barack Obama.
The country’s 44th commander-in-chief brought his beloved oratorial style to bear on a time of frayed nerves and uncertain futures. His words came nearly three months into a nationwide quarantine to combat the coronavirus pandemic and almost two weeks after the killing of George Floyd, whose death at the hands of police has inspired protests both at home and abroad.
“I can barely imagine how head-spinning these last few months have been for you,” Obama told the nation’s graduates. “Graduation is a big achievement under any circumstances, yours comes as the world is turned upside down.”
Still, Obama refused to surrender to despair, instead seeing the various calamities that have affected the nation and the world as an excuse to see what it’s exposed about how our society functions — or doesn’t.
“The thing is, Class of 2020, what these past few weeks have shown us is that the challenges we face go well beyond a virus, and that the old normal wasn’t good enough — it wasn’t working,” Obama told them.
“In a lot of ways, the pandemic just brought into focus problems that have been growing for a very long time, whether it’s widening economic inequality, the lack of basic health care for millions of people, the continuing scourge of bigotry and sexism, or the divisions and dysfunction that plague our political system.”
“Similarly, the protests in response to the killing of George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, and Nina Pop aren’t simply a reaction to those particular tragedies, as heartbreaking as they are,” Obama said. “They speak to decades worth of anguish and frustration over unequal treatment and a failure to reform police practices and the broader criminal justice system.”
Obama admitted that looking to what lies ahead of them, and all of us, can be “downright scary,” but he also warned about what not to do. He never namechecked his successor, but he did essentially subtweet him. “Democracy isn’t about relying on some charismatic leader to make changes from on high,” he said. “It’s about finding hope in ourselves, and creating it in others. Especially in a time like this. You don’t always need hope when everything’s going fine. It’s when things seem darkest — that’s when you need it the most.”
Along similar lines, he warned against “reading only news and opinions that reinforce our own biases and start canceling everything else out; we let opinion masquerade as fact and treat even the wildest conspiracy theories as worthy of consideration.” He added, “And the irony is that usually the people who are peddling falsehoods on the Internet or social media are doing so for their own purposes — either to sell you something or to distract you from the real issues that matter.”
Obama’s pre-recorded speech, which ran nearly 15 minutes, joined those of others, ranging from musicians (Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish, Lizzo) to actors (Seth Rogen, Chris Pine), other politicians (Condoleeza Rice), as well as Obama’s own wife, Michelle Obama. “Congratulations, Class of 2020,” he concluded. “Make it mean something. And keep making us proud.”
You can watch Obama’s full speech in the video above.