Without the springtime rituals of conventional commencement ceremonies, former President Barack Obama delivered two digital graduation addresses on Saturday, urging tens of millions of highschool and school graduates to fearlessly carve a path and “to seize the initiative” at a time when he says the nation’s leaders have fumbled the response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The speeches, aired hours aside, mixed the inspirational recommendation given to graduates — construct neighborhood, do what is true, be a frontrunner — with pointed criticism of the dealing with of an outbreak that has killed more than 87,000 Americans and crippled much of the economy.
“More than anything, this pandemic has fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they’re doing,” Mr. Obama said in his first address, directed at graduates of historically black colleges and universities. “A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge.”
Although Mr. Obama did not mention President Trump by name, some saw his comments as criticism of his successor.
“President Trump’s unprecedented coronavirus response has saved lives,” Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, said in a statement that cited the administration’s travel restrictions, small business loan program and use of the private sector “to fill the stockpile left depleted by his predecessor.”
In speeches that spoke to social inequities, Mr. Obama said the pandemic was a wake-up call for young adults, showing them the importance of good leadership and that “the old ways of doing things just don’t work.”
“Doing what feels good, what’s convenient, what’s easy — that’s how little kids think,” he said during a prime time special for high school seniors. “Unfortunately, a lot of so-called grown-ups, including some with fancy titles and important jobs, still think that way — which is why things are so screwed up. I hope that instead, you decide to ground yourself in values that last, like honesty, hard work, responsibility, fairness, generosity, respect for others.”
Mr. Obama’s comments were one of his few public addresses to a national audience during the outbreak, and he said a leadership void had created a clear mandate for the graduates: “If the world’s going to get better, it’s going to be up to you,” he said.
Mr. Obama’s remarks were billed as commencement speeches, but they also appeared to be an effort to comfort and assure an American public divided by Mr. Trump’s handling of the crisis. The former president also used the occasions to attempt to rally the nation in an election year around values historically championed by Democrats like universal health care, and environmental and economic justice.
Since leaving office three years ago, Mr. Obama generally has avoided publicly criticizing Mr. Trump. But his jabs at the pandemic response could further inflame tensions between the two most recent occupants of the White House.
The prime-time event, “Graduate Together: High School Class of 2020 Commencement,” was organized by XQ Institute, a think tank that works with schools, in partnership with LeBron James’s foundation and the Entertainment Industry Foundation, a philanthropic organization. It aired on major television networks.
Mr. Obama told the seniors the outbreak had forced them to “grow up faster than some generations,” as they have had to deal with the pressures of social media, school shootings, climate change and, now, a pandemic.
He encouraged the high school graduates to face down those challenges, as scary as they might be.
“If we’re going to create a world where everybody has the opportunity to find a job, and afford college; if we’re going to save the environment and defeat future pandemics, then we’re going to have to do it together,” he said. “So be alive to one another’s struggles.”
That two-hour event, “Show Me Your Walk H.B.C.U. Edition,” was streamed on the social media platforms of its corporate sponsor, JPMorgan Chase. Hosted by Kevin Hart, it also featured dozens of prominent African-American athletes, politicians and entertainers, many of whom were H.B.C.U. graduates.
[You can see Mr. Obama’s remarks at the H.B.C.U ceremony, beginning 1 hour, 47 minutes into the video below.]
Mr. Obama told the college graduates, most of whom are black, that the coronavirus “just spotlights the underlying inequalities and extra burdens that black communities have historically had to deal with in this country.”
The disparities are not just in public health, but also “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,” he said.
It was a reference to the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man who was chased by a white father and son and fatally shot in a coastal Georgia community in February.
As communities across the country emerge from stay-at-home measures, and people clash over how much freedom they should have, Mr. Obama suggested that Americans needed to be considerate of others.
He encouraged the graduates to work with other marginalized groups in their efforts to create societal change.
“It doesn’t matter how much money you make if everyone around you is hungry and sick,” he said, later adding that “our society and democracy only works when we think not just about ourselves, but about each other.”
Ariel Turnley, 21, watched her own Spelman College virtual graduation with her mother and aunt in the living room of her Lauderhill, Fla., home, then tuned into Mr. Obama’s speech for H.B.C.U. students.
“I think President Obama said what so many of us feel, that those in power are not doing the best things they can during this pandemic with the power they have,” said Ms. Turnley, who graduated with a degree in computer science. “I also appreciated him talking about the injustices that have been highlighted during this pandemic. This is not the graduation that we imagined, but I felt like he offered the words I wanted to hold on to during this crisis.”
Mr. Obama’s speech came at a time when new social-distancing norms have dashed many graduation traditions — from the ritual of walking across the stage to tossing of the graduation cap to family and friends celebrations — so popular political leaders and celebrities have stepped in to offer assuring messages as graduates enter a world shaped by uncertainty, infection fears and economic instability.
Mr. Obama is scheduled to make a third online commencement address on June 6, along with Michelle Obama, in a ceremony hosted by YouTube.
While he was president, Mr. Obama delivered the commencement addresses at three historically black schools, Hampton University, Howard University and Morehouse College.
The former president has had a complicated relationship with the H.B.C.U. community. While overall funding for the institutions increased during his eight years in office, some complained that he did not make them a priority, and that cuts and changes made under his watch to Pell grants and other loan programs made life difficult for some H.B.C.U. students.
He called H.B.C.U. graduates the “inheritors of one of America’s proudest traditions,” and they needed to act.
“Whether you realize it or not, you’ve got more road maps, more role models, and more resources than the Civil Rights generation did,” he said. “You’ve got more tools, technology, and talents than my generation did. No generation has been better positioned to be warriors for justice and remake the world.”
Michael D. Shear contributed reporting.