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President Barack Obama, whose re- election campaign is counting on support from women and young voters, told Barnard College graduates that they must help rekindle the “can-do” spirit of the U.S. and be active shapers of the nation’s future.
Obama told the class of 2012 at the all-female college in New York that they must resist “creeping cynicism” and stay engaged in the nation’s political and economic life.
“After decades of slow, steady, extraordinary progress, you are now poised to make this the century where women shape not only your own destiny, but the destiny of” the U.S. and the world, Obama said in the commencement address.
Today’s speech is Obama’s first commencement address of the season. Obama is reaching out to younger voters and women, two groups that helped solidify his 2008 victory and will be critical this year in his contest against presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
In New York today, Obama will also tape an appearance on ABC’s “The View” program and attend two campaign fundraisers with donors from Wall Street and the gay community. Obama will raise money at the home of Tony James, president of Blackstone Group LP, the world’s largest private-equity firm, and attend an event hosted by pop singer Ricky Martin, marking the first gay- rights fundraiser since last week’s announcement.
“This is the campaign’s getting started phase and getting the troops ready for the war,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey.
While the president sought to avoid an overtly political message, he used the address to the all-women liberal arts college to implore younger voters, and women in particular, to remain active participants in society.
He told the graduates they must revive “that defiant can- do spirit is what runs through the veins of American history. It’s the life blood of all our progress and it is that spirit which we need your generation to embrace and to rekindle right now.”
Obama is trying to recapture the enthusiasm his campaign generated four years ago at a time when college graduates are entering a still sluggish economy. The unemployment rate has increased among younger Americans, even though it’s declined to 8.1 percent nationally. The April jobless rate for 20-24 year olds was 13.2 percent, an increase from 12.4 percent since Obama took office.
In 2008, Obama won 56 percent of the women’s vote to 43 percent for Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, according to national exit polls. While Democrats traditionally win the women’s vote, Obama and Romney are competing for the support of white, suburban and working class women. Polls have shown Obama performing better among single and younger women.
Alexis Erdheim, who just finished her junior year at Barnard College, plans to cast her first ballot in a presidential election for Obama.
“It’s important for him to make a statement about women and women’s rights,” Erdheim, a religion major from Livingston, New Jersey, said before the ceremony.
Obama’s advantage among female voters over Romney is giving him an edge in polls. According to a May 9 Associated Press-GfK poll, Obama has the backing of 54 percent of women voters compared to Romney’s 39 percent. By contrast, men were split at 46 percent for each candidate.
The gap among women poses a major electoral hurdle to the Republican’s chances of winning the White House. To keep that margin as wide as possible, Obama’s campaign aides are looking to highlight the president’s record on women’s rights and hold Romney to the more conservative stances he took on women’s health and other social issues during the Republican primary.
To appeal to the Republican Party base and evangelical voters, Romney cited his opposition to abortion rights, saying he wanted to “get rid” of Planned Parenthood and he also voiced support for allowing some employers to deny health insurance coverage for contraception.
The birth-control debate reignited earlier this year when the Obama administration sought to require some religious- affiliated institutions to provide contraceptive health- insurance coverage for women employees.
At Barnard, Obama received a Medal of Distinction, along with Evan Wolfson, a gay rights advocate, who is the founder and president of Freedom to Marry.
To contact the reporter on this story: Julianna Goldman in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at email@example.com