Obama Calls for Unity during the Abortion Debate at Notre Dame, 2009

In honor of the college commencement season, EM&P has embarked on a five-post series focusing on commencement speeches given by incumbent U.S. Presidents. One of the primary obligations of the President is to acknowledge wide-ranging, highly-transparent public disagreements. Of course,how the President chooses to address the issue can be found in their enacted policies. Unlike the constitutionally-mandated annual State of the Union Address, the President’s traditional annual college commencement address is a chance to address the world in a more candid manner. In the previous post (found here), President Bill Clinton spoke at the University of California—San Diego’s Preuss School. In his June 1997 speech, Clinton spoke candidly about both sides of a divisive, well-known issue: how UCSD’s new charter school could address the needs of low-income and/or minority students after California eliminated affirmative action with Proposition 209 in 1996.

President Obama at Notre Dame

In May 2009, President Barack Obama sparked controversy before even setting foot on the campus of the University of Notre Dame.[1] Several months prior, when Notre Dame President Father John I. Jenkins invited Obama to speak, many students and faculty were outraged because Obama’s pro-choice abortion stance conflicted with the university’s Roman Catholic identity.[2] Although top-secret Presidential security is often subtle during a President’s visit, the placard-wielding protestors near armed security guards made the President’s safety a public concern. Even during the commencement, protestors outside were handcuffed and dragged into police cars while muttering prayers. Amid the chaos of protestors, President Obama had to be strategic in delivering his message. Clearly, the issue could not be ignored and had to somehow be addressed in the commencement speech. At the same time, however, the entire speech could not focus entirely on the issue of abortion.

However, a happy medium could be drawn by his speechwriters, who likely looked to Obama’s Presidential predecessors for inspiration. While the specific rhetorical strategies were different for each President based on unique social conditions, the broad objective and the way of accomplishing this objective is the same—to promote social unity, speak broadly and then move specifically. For President Obama, this was no exception. He began his speech on a humorous note to find common ground with the audience. He began:

Now, this excites me. [Laughter] I want to congratulate the winners of this year's tournament, a team by the name of "Hallelujah[3] Holla Back." [Laughter] Congratulations, well done. Though I have to say, I am personally disappointed that the "Barack O'Ballers"[4] did not pull it out this year. [Laughter] So next year, if you need a 6'2" forward with a decent jumper, you know where I live. [Laughter][5]


Judging by the audiences’ laughter, Obama found common ground with Notre Dame through his love for basketball. He knew that he was surrounded by sports fans, especially fans of Notre Dame’s famous “Fighting Irish” sports teams. While humor is hardly a new Presidential commencement rhetorical tactic, its use to alleviate a particularly tense situation is not common. Obama knew that his message would not be as effective if the audience was uncomfortable in their seats. However, by disarming the situation with humor, Obama could assure himself that the audience would be relaxed so that they could hear his message.      

            At the body of his speech, Obama rhetorically squared-off with the issue of abortion directly. He said:

Your generation must decide how to save God's creation from a changing climate that threatens to destroy it. Your generation must seek peace at a time when there are those who will stop at nothing to do us harm, and when weapons in the hands of a few can destroy the many. And we must find a way to reconcile our ever-shrinking world with its ever-growing diversity: diversity of thought, diversity of culture, and diversity of belief. In short, we must find a way to live together as one human family.[6]


President Obama subtly reminded his audience of the beauty of America’s government—that the citizens can choose to support certain positions and thus elect leaders who reflect their views. Even if some citizens do not agree with a leader’s views, they do not have to vote for them. Likewise, the dissenting group can still support their own views. However, they are obliged to respect the leader.

At the beginning of this part of his speech, Obama starts, “Your generation must decide…” Such a phrase was calculated because, in the 2008 election, college-aged students voted for Obama over Republican contender John McCain by a margin of 68% to 32%.[7] Regarding abortion, Obama calls for each camp—pro-life and pro-choice—to recognize and respect one another’s differences. Clearly, Obama has every right to say this, as he is acting as the mediator between the officials that invited him and the protestors that objected to his presence.

Since Obama was newly-elected, he clearly knew that appearing at a controversial event would place him in the center of the spotlight. Even though virtually everyone in the audience knew that Obama was pro-choice, he did not use Notre Dame’s podium to preach his values and policies. Even if a President was not at a Catholic (or Christian)-affiliated university, the chances that they would only address their side of a controversial issue is quite low. To do so would defeat the goal of building unity in a commencement speech.


            Just as in President Clinton's speech discussed last week, President Obama used rhetorical strategies to diffuse a controversial issue. While Obama used more humor, both Presidents examined each side of the issue to create unity. Acknowledging both sides of an issue is important. One of the many reasons why an issue can be controversial is because one side may not feel that their side is acknowledged. As opposed to summarizing each opposing side’s argument, a clever rhetorical strategy to acknowledge both sides is to find commonalities between them. Clinton knew that all races were under the banner of the American flag. Similarly, Obama was certain that both pro-life and pro-choice advocates—especially those at Notre Dame—were united under the pride of Notre Dame’s famed “Fighting Irish” sports teams. Outside of the confines of Notre Dame, each group would inevitably face a society where their ideas on death would be challenged consistently as time passed.


[1]Prior to addressing Notre Dame, Obama probably knew that his political affiliation was in the minority. With the exception of Jimmy Carter, all of Notre Dame’s Presidential Commencements have featured Republican Presidents. The previous years that Presidents appeared at the University of Notre Dame are: 1960 (Eisenhower), 1977 (Carter), 1981 (Reagan), 1992 (Bush Sr.) and 2001 (Bush Jr.).

[2]Libreria Editrice Vaticana, "Catechism of the Catholic Church." http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P7Z.HTM (Accessed October 25, 2011). According to part 3, section 2, chapter 2 article 5 paragraph 2271 of the Roman Catholic Church’s Catechism: “Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law.”

[3]Many Christian denominations, particularly Catholicism, use “Hallelujah” as lyrics during worship music.

[4]“O’Ballers” likely humorizes Notre Dame’s affinity for Irish culture. Notre Dame’s sports mascot is an Irish Leprechaun, with his fists up, and referred to as the “Fighting Irish.”

[5]Address at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana May 17, 2009." http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=86154#axzz1KxK1MNH0 (accessed April 29, 2011).


[7]Wayne F. Lesperance "Obama’s winning coalition is crumbling." New Hampshire KeeneSentinel. Last Modified October 28, 2011. http://sentinelsource.com/opinion/columnists/guest/obama-s-winning-coalition-is-crumbling-by-wayne-f-lesperance/article_bab1c7ac-c50f-53af-92de-f09bb3a9ff8b.html (accessed October 30, 2011).