For a few hours on Saturday, it was almost possible to imagine that Barack Obama was back in the White House and Michelle Obama was still first lady. The 44th president was the keynote speaker at two different virtual commencement speeches, one given for college graduates and the other for high school seniors—both of whom were robbed of their graduation ceremonies because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The first came at the end of a two-hour event honoring the graduates of historically black colleges and universities, sponsored by Chase and hosted by Kevin Hart, that was streamed on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. The second came on “Graduate Together: High School Class of 2020 Commencement,” a prime time special carried by all the national networks (including Fox), and which was presented by the, XQ Institute, the LeBron James Family Foundation, and the Entertainment Industry Foundation. Besides Obama's address, the event also featured short speeches by LeBron James, Timothée Chalamet and Bad Bunny and musical performances by, among others, Dua Lipa. Ben Platt, Chika and the Jonas Brothers. (The background for both speeches were the same—partially filled bookshelves—but the former president changed from a grey shirt to a blue one for his second appearance and swapped out a basketball for a family photo.)
At both, Obama showed that three years out of office has not dimmed his oratorical skills. Here are some of the highlights.
Barack throws some shade: Shortly into his HBCU speech, the 44th president was unusually direct in his criticism of the current administration and its response to the coronavirus crisis. "More than anything, this pandemic has fully, finally, torn back the curtain on the idea that the folks in charge know what they are doing," Obama said, staring steelily into the camera. "A lot of them aren't even pretending to be in charge." Though Obama didn't mention Donald Trump by name, his intention was clear, breaking with an unspoken tradition that former presidents rarely rebuke their successors in public. Perhaps Obama was getting back a bit of his own, reacting to a recent comment on Fox News by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, long a Trump apologist, who, in response to a news report that Obama had privately criticized Trump in a conference call with former aides, said the former president "should have kept his mouth shut."
But then he reminds us why we miss him. After that rebuke of the White House, Obama quickly turned to the hope and promise offered by the students he was addressing, encouraging them to be the leaders this country needs. "If the world is going to get better," he said, "it's going to be up to you."
And then reminds us again: Obama acknowledged that many of the graduates on Saturday could have chosen predominantly white colleges, some possibly more prestigious than the ones they attended. But that deliberate choice, he said, was done because they knew that the HBCU experience "would help you sow seeds of change." Then, later, he added: "Meaningful change requires allies in common cause. As African Americans, we are particularly attuned to injustice, inequality, and struggle. But that also should make us more alive to the experiences of others who’ve been left out and discriminated against. ... As Fannie Lou Hamer once said, 'nobody’s free until everybody’s free.'"
He's still the comedian-in-chief: Throughout his eight years as president, Barack Obama would occasionally demonstrate his impeccable comic timing, most notably at the annual White House Correspondents Dinner. That skill came out again on Saturday night, with a speech that was a bit looser and funnier than his earlier address. Acknowledging that this year's class would miss not only its graduation ceremonies, but also the year-end parties that accompanied them, Obama conceded that sheltering-in-place was not exactly the best trade-off: "As much as I’m sure you love your parents, I’ll bet that being stuck at home with them and playing board games or watching Tiger King on TV is not exactly how you envisioned the last few months of your senior year." But he did suggest that missing graduation itself may not be the worst thing- fashion-wise, saying that a cap-and-gown was not a particularly flattering look "especially if you have big ears like me. "
He's not afraid to speak uncomfortable truths. At the HBCU event, he directly addressed the issue that COVID-19 was disproportionally affecting African-Americans and referenced the tragic incident that resulted in the death of Ahmaud Arbery and murder charges for the two white men who shot him while he was out for run. “Let’s be honest — a disease like this just spotlights the underlying inequalities and extra burdens that black communities have historically had to deal with in this country,” Obama said. “We see it in the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on our communities, just as we see it when a black man goes for a jog, and some folks feel like they can stop and question and shoot him if he doesn’t submit to their questioning.”
In case you missed it the first time, he's not a fan of Donald Trump: Though he again did not mention the president by name when he addressed the high school seniors, it was not hard to catch his meaning when the told them that the pandemic had "pulled the curtain back on another hard truth, something that we all have to eventually accept once our childhood comes to an end. All those adults that you used to think were in charge and knew what they were doing? Turns out that they don’t have all the answers. A lot of them aren’t even asking the right questions. So, if the world’s going to get better, it going to be up to you."
He still knows how to close: As he neared the end his speech, Obama briefly mentioned the Obama Foundation, founded by himself and the former first lady in order to "give young people like you the skills and support to lead in your own communities." But then he quickly turned his attention to the students themselves, offering a rousing, inspirational message that, just for a moment, might have salved the emotional wounds inflicted by this pandemic: "The truth is that you don’t need us to tell you what to do. Because in so many ways, you’ve already started to lead. Congratulations, Class of 2020. Keep making us proud."
Watch the full speech below:
Originally Appeared on Vogue