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Obamas share tough love, inspiration with black graduates

This past Sunday President Barack Obama used the power of the bully pulpit during his commencement address at Morehouse College in Atlanta.
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

This past Sunday President Barack Obama used the power of the bully pulpit during his commencement address at Morehouse College in Atlanta.

In a speech at the historically black, all-male college, the president had some tough love for the 500 or so men seated in front of him.

First, he heaped praise on the class of 2013. “Your generation is uniquely poised for success, unlike any generation of African-Americans that came before it,” he said.

But then he said they—and others in the black community—needed to keep striving for more and used himself as an example.

“We know that too many young men in our community continue to make bad choices,” the president said. “And I have to say, growing up, I made quite a few myself.  Sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down. But one of the things that all of you have learned over the last four years is there's no longer any room for excuses.”

This message of empowerment, delivered directly to the black community, is not a new theme for this president; it’s just the latest iteration of the effort.

In 2008, while first campaigning for the presidency, then-Sen. Obama said this during a Father’s Day speech at a church in Chicago: “There's a reason why our families are in disrepair and some of it has to do with a tragic history, but we can't keep on using that as an excuse.”

It’s clear that Obama and first lady Michelle Obama have realized that, even as the president has to face tough questions about mismanagement at the Internal Revenue Service and resources at diplomatic facilities around the world, they can still use their recognition to encourage blacks to help themselves.

And, in the last week, it seemed like a coordinated effort by the first couple to push this message. On Friday, the first lady got into the act while speaking at another historically black university, Bowie State University in Maryland.

“We need to once again fight to educate ourselves and our children like our lives depend on it,” she said, “because they do.”

And she paraphrased this line her husband used back in 2004 when he spoke at the Democratic National Convention: “Children can't achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white."

Even if Washington can’t get anything done, it seems both the president and the first lady are determined—with just three years to go until they leave the White House—not only to inspire, but to inform.  By deliberately choosing to speak at historically black universities, they force a light to be shined on these places that represent some of the best of the African-American community.

President Obama usually includes specific references to the stories of graduates in the audience during commencement speeches and Sunday’s was no different.

“When Leland Shelton was 4-years-old, social services took him away from his mama, put him in the care of his grandparents,” Obama said. “By age 14, he was in the foster care system. Three years after that, Leland enrolled in Morehouse. And today he is graduating Phi Beta Kappa on his way to Harvard Law School.”

The words are important, but what was captured on video was a teary Leland Shelton surrounded by his capped-and-gowned Morehouse brothers cheering him on.

The importance of cameras capturing African-Americans celebrating education and beaming that around the world is not lost on this First Couple, and it’s one of the goals of these speeches. The other goal: to make sure everybody, but particularly African-Americans, keep striving for excellence and helping each other succeed in a world that is still full of challenges.

Shawna Thomas is a producer with NBC News in Washington. See her on-air report above. This article originally appeared on NBC News' First Read blog.