Drama over Obamanard aside, the president of the United States coming to speak at Barnard is a BFD. All of his carefully considered appearances are under extreme scrutiny, especially in an election year. Thus his decision (as DSpar explained, he requested to speak and was not asked) to speak at any college had to have involved a lot of thought, planning, and coffee. Bwog set out to see what goes into a move like this, and to pick the brains of the big minds on campus.
A Political Move
Flora Davidson, a political science (and CULPA silver nugget) professor at Barnard, was quick to agree that this is a strategic political move. She explained that Obama’s decision to speak will “help him to highlight a demographic he thinks he can sway in his favor.” However, she went on, moves like this do not change the mind of voters but serve to “reinforce preexisting dispositions.” In this case, Obama is looking at women voters. Rosalind Rosenberg, retired history professor at Barnard who taught courses about women and politics, stated that “Obama’s decision to speak at Barnard signals both that he cares about women’s particular health care concerns and that he recognizes his reelection is going to depend on women’s votes.”
Female (Electoral) Power
Obama won the last election thanks, in no small part, to young female voters. Ester Fuchs—who taught political science, including the American Parties and Election course, at Barnard for twenty years, worked with Bloomberg, and is now Professor of Public Affairs and Political Science and Director of the Urban and Social Policy Program at SIPA—gave figures to prove this. In 2008, 70.4 million women voted, while only 60.7 million men did. The turnout rate was approximately 5% higher for women than men. This has been a trend since 1980, giving women more power in the electorate and showing that to win an election, one really needs the female vote. As Fuchs put it, “ignore women at your own peril.” In the 2008 election, 56% of women voted for Obama while McCain got 43% of female votes. Among the male voters, it was nearly an even split.
It was more than just women, though, Obama relied on the youth vote for his election. In 2008 there was a 7% gender gap in turnout rates for the 18-24 year-old bracket, with about 1 million more women voters—again, Obama needs the women. Moreover, in general the 18-24 bracket is a “very important group to Obama.” The 2008 election saw a surge in this group with a 52% turnout rate versus 2000’s 34.6% rate, a majority of whom voted for Obama.
Women’s Healthcare Debate
Women are especially important politically this year, in case you haven’t been paying attention to
Jon Stewart the news. With debates about women’s healthcare and contraceptives, the GOP has, in Professor Fuch’s words, shown a “general disrespect for young women,” giving Obama the opportunity to swoop in and be the hero. “In 2011, 92 laws in 24 states were passed restricting women’s access to reproductive health, making it the worst year since Roe v Wade,” says CUDems president Janine Balekdjian, CC ’13. “Even Mitt Romney’s poll numbers among women are slipping.” Here, again, we have Prof. Davidson’s idea that this speech will reinforce preexisting dispositions. Balekdjian thinks his decision “reaffirms his commitment to women’s rights and his dedication to the advancement and empowerment of women.”
Balekdjian thinks Obama’s speech “will draw parallels between Barnard’s project of female empowerment and the Democratic Party’s support of women’s rights.” Fuchs added that after taking abuse from the Republicans, young women will be attracted to Obama’s support of women. He is coming to a place where “young women are valued, recognized, and respected,” bolstering the view of Obama as a feminist supporter. His speech at Barnard will assert that “women count, young women count,” and will “energize young women to come out and support [Obama]” as “the only way to be heard is to turn out and vote for him.”
Sean Udell, CCSC class president of 2011 and leader of the failed POTUS Project, remarked that Obama’s speech at Barnard will “remind people [women’s healthcare] is still a political issue,” in three months when the Republicans will want voters to forget about the debate. Choosing to speak at Barnard specifically was smart, according to Professor Davidson, because it’s in New York City. Automatically, his speech will have national coverage—there have already been articles in the New York Times about
Obama the “Snob”
But given commentary that Obama is elitist and snobbish for having gone to Ivy League schools and hoping that all Americans go to college, will his decision to speak at Barnard, given its high esteem and affiliation with Columbia, have bad repercussions? Not according to Professor Davidson, who thinks there is “no downside for him” to speak at Barnard. “The people who say he is elitist will continue to attack him no matter where he speaks,” she explained. Balekdjian was more dismissive in her response, saying, “the idea that college is for snobs only is so far beyond the pale that President Obama doesn’t need to spend any time or effort refuting it or justifying his position.”
Why No Columbia?
Nevertheless, speaking at Columbia could alienate voters and also lacks the benefits of attracting the female vote. Although this is understandable, it is still not clear why Obama did not speak at Columbia last year, after an invitation from PrezBo and the POTUS Project. Udell is still confused, explaining that he personally sees “no reason for why he didn’t speak,” but Obama gave no official reason for not coming. Last year Obama gave the Coast Guard Commencement on the same day as CC’s graduation. Udell does not take this as a good enough reason for him to deny his alma mater, though. “If he wanted to speak, he would have found a way.”
Udell believes that Obama’s negative undergraduate experience plays a “huge” part in why he didn’t speak. The POTUS Project aimed to show the president that things have changed since he was an undergrad, with letters explaining the changes and expressing how there is a more vibrant life now than while Obama was here. However, we shouldn’t take it too personally. As Udell said, Obama “had a good experience at Harvard, but hasn’t spoken there.” (Unless you count this…)
A Message to Viewers Like You
You may have noticed some people got angry following the announcement that Obama will give Barnard’s commencement speech. Professor Davidson shrugs it off as “speaker envy,” saying it is “only natural.” It’s sibling rivalry at its finest, with Barnard getting a speakers “as big a get as you can get,” engendering Columbian jealousy.
Udell thinks it runs deeper than that, calling the arguments a product of misogyny and elitism prominent at Columbia, despite that there are “exceptional students at Barnard.” The attacks are “just petty” and only serve to make CC look bad. Udell, who studied Urban Studies at Barnard and was a TA there asserts that Barnard is “just as, if not more rigorous” as Columbia, especially because it is a smaller school. But at the end of the day, Udell says, “the point is, who cares? We’re all trying to do great things, and trashing each other is just a waste of time.”
Davidson remarks that commencement will be “memorable for graduates and everyone who is around. Everyone’s very excited.” Balekdjian and Udell share bittersweet opinions, with Balekdjian echoing many Columbians’ reactions: “it’s…incredibly exciting for the University as a whole. I just wish I could get a ticket.”
Author’s note: CUCR declined to comment for this article.
Image via Wikimedia Commons