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Sitting Presidents Give Way More Commencement Speeches Than They Used To

President Obama is giving the 23rd commencement address of his presidency this Sunday at Rutgers University, and his 24th and last at the Air Force Academy on June 2. He spoke at Howard University on Saturday.

Three commencement speeches per year is the usual pace for presidents since Bill Clinton took office in 1993. George H.W. Bush, his predecessor, significantly upped the pace with 23 speeches in his four-year term. Before he took office, presidents typically gave one or two commencement speeches per year.


Obama’s final year on the circuit takes him to a military academy, another public institution and a private school. Since Harry Truman took office in 1945 — the start of complete commencement-speech records in the American Presidency Project’s archive — presidents have spoken at graduations of military academies 44 times, other public schools 54 times and private schools 53 times. Those counts include colleges, universities and high schools — but not the Capitol Page School, graced four times by Lyndon Johnson and once each by Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter. (The chart above includes the Capitol page addresses.)

Obama’s speech at Howard was the ninth by a president at a historically black college or university since 1979, when Jimmy Carter spoke at Cheyney State College. Presidents have given more commencement speeches at HBCUs (11) than at Ivy League schools (9).

Obama has spoken widely, in 17 states and D.C., while giving commencement addresses no more than three times in any one state (New York). But even his travels can’t right the historical imbalance in geographical diversity of presidential commencement speeches. Presidents are busy, so 36 times they chose to take a short trip within Washington, Maryland and Virginia — making more speeches in those three places than in 37 states combined.

Obama, seeking to reach a wide range of students, takes into account a number of factors in choosing schools for his commencement speeches, such as the size of the school, its location and the speaking schedules of Michelle Obama and Joe Biden, a White House spokeswoman said.

Obama’s run as a president giving commencement speeches is up this year, but he’ll likely have many more chances to address graduates in the years to come. Bill Clinton, for example, spoke last Saturday at the commencement of Loyola Marymount University and is scheduled to speak Sunday to 41 graduates at the eponymous University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service.

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Carl Bialik was FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for news.