Obama To Grads: "Always More To Achieve"

(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Controversy has followed President Obama to college. Wednesday evening, he gave his first commencement address as president at the Arizona State University. The school decided to buck tradition and not offer the president an honorary degree saying that he hadn't accomplished enough yet. They later changed their tune to say that the school has a policy against giving degrees to politicians just because they are politicians.

On Sunday, the President will speak at Notre Dame University, an event that is being boycotted by some in the anti-abortion rights community. That's a larger controversy that touches on an issue that many are very passionate about.

Here in Arizona, the controversy isn't as heavy. The school has decided to name a scholarship in Mr. Obama's honor and speaking to the crowd of 9,000 graduates and 62,000 friends and family, he was greeted with a prolonged standing ovation. He took on this controversy with his trademark humor.

"Now, before I begin, I'd like to clear the air about that little controversy everyone was talking about a few weeks back. I have to tell you, I really thought it was much ado about nothing, although I think we all learned an important lesson. I learned to never again pick another team over the Sun Devils in my NCAA bracket," he said to laughter. "It won't happen. And your university president and Board of Regents will soon learn all about being audited by the IRS," he joked.

But soon, the president used the measure of one's accomplishment in life to make a broader point about today's college graduates contributing to society.

"I come here not to dispute the suggestion that I haven't yet achieved enough in my life," he said. "I come to embrace it; to heartily concur; to affirm that one's title, even a title like president, says very little about how well one's life has been led - and that no matter how much you've done, or how successful you've been, there's always more to do, more to learn, more to achieve."

And while the president has spoken at length in recent months about the health of the economy, today he added a new line to remind graduates that money isn't the only goal of a prosperous society.

"It was in pursuit of gaudy short-term profits, and the bonuses that come with them, that so many folks lost their way on Wall Street," Mr. Obama said.

He went further, identifying by name one of those who lost their way.

"The trappings of success may be a by-product of this larger mission, but they can't be the central thing. Just ask Bernie Madoff."

For the first time as president, he addressed the future of a group of college graduates, the maroon clad Sun Devils gathered before him, telling them that it was the great story of America: young people coming together to get the country through its tough times.

"They weren't doing it for the money. Their titles weren't fancy - ex-slave, minister, student, citizen. Whole bunch of them didn't get honorary degrees. But they changed the course of history - and so can you ASU. So can you class of 2009," he said to raucous applause.

He also asked them for help in taking on America's challenges.

"It is moments like these that force us to try harder, to dig deeper, to discover gifts we never knew we had - to find the greatness that lies within each of us."

Returning to theme of the night, he ended by telling the graduated to never stop adding to their body of work.

Robert Hendin is a CBS News White House producer.