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President Obama: 'Great to be Back at Northwestern'

Commander-in-chief lavishes affection on Illinois friends, Northwestern connections

EVANSTON, Ill. --- President Barack Obama had a homecoming of his own Oct. 2 when he visited the Northwestern University campus and lavished praise on all things Northwestern --the University, its innovative research and the Kellogg School of Management.

When he said “Go’ Cats,” at least one student decided to turn it into her ringtone.

At a time when he has been buffeted by crises abroad and partisan politics at home, the president seemed relaxed and in good humor delivering an hourlong speech surrounded by Illinois friends, political supporters and an enthusiastic audience of students, faculty and staff, many sporting Northwestern purple and a variety of related shades.

“It is great to be back home,” he said to loud applause from nearly 1,000 people packed into Cahn Auditorium on Northwestern’s Evanston campus. “It’s great to be back at Northwestern. 

“Back when I was a senator, I had the honor of delivering the commencement address for the class of 2006. And as it turns out, I’ve got a bunch of staff who graduated from here, and so they’re constantly lobbying me about stuff. 

“And so, earlier this year, I popped in via video to help kick off Dance Marathon. I figured this time I’d come in person -- not only because it’s nice to be so close to home, but it’s also just nice to see old friends, people who helped to form how I think about public service; people who helped me along the way.”

The audience was with him from that moment on. He delivered a wide-ranging defense of his economic policy, emphasizing his administration’s role in helping the nation dig out of the Great Recession -- the nation’s worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. He stressed that it is America’s economic strength that fuels U.S. leadership on the global stage during such an uncertain time in the world. But he also acknowledged that many Americans have yet to feel personally the impact of the recovery.

More than 100 local and national journalists and student reporters crowded into Cahn Auditorium to cover the event. The excited audience hushed when the presidential seal was added to the podium, and anticipation grew for the president’s arrival on a stage bedecked with 10 American flags.

Right from the beginning, the president was speaking specifically to the Northwestern students, faculty, officials, alumni and dignitaries who had gotten the coveted tickets to the address and waited in lines up to two-blocks long to get into the auditorium.

His affection for Northwestern, he suggested, is continually reinforced by the many Northwestern graduates who have worked for his administration and campaigns over the years. He also talked about his vision for a new economy that would depend heavily on innovations from great universities like Northwestern.

“I’m also happy to be here because this is a university that is brimming with the possibilities of a new economy -- your research and technology; the ideas and the innovation; the training of doctors and educators, and scientists and entrepreneurs. You can’t help but visit a campus like this and feel the promise of the future,” he said.

Cody Keenan, President Obama’s chief speechwriter and a 2002 Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences graduate, briefed the president about his alma mater on the flight to campus.

\"I loved being back, even if briefly,\" Keenan said after the trip. “We were so impressed by the number of students who turned out to see the helicopters and the motorcade. It hit me that when I was a student, the notion of landing on the lakefill in the President of the United States’ helicopter, then traveling in his motorcade down Sheridan Road, wouldn't even have crossed my mind.

“I landed in a Marine Corps helicopter where I used to take naps on sunny days, for crying out loud.”

At least one other Northwestern alum from the White House staff also accompanied the president on the trip: Bobby Schmuck, special assistant to the president and senior advisor to the deputy chief of staff, Oval Office operations, and a 2007 graduate of the School of Communication. Another alum who helped on the speech was Jason Miller, a 2005 Kellogg graduate and deputy director of the National Economic Council, who leads economic policy coordination on manufacturing and innovation.

Framing his administration’s economic successes with a litany of numbers, the president joked with Kellogg students that they could hold their applause, “because I’m going to be giving you a lot of good statistics.” He called them “the leaders of the future.” At one point, mentioning business surveys, the president said, “Kellogg, you’re familiar with these.”

Later in the speech, he drew laughter and applause from the Kellogg students and others when he observed that American-led research into sequencing the human genome had produced a $140 return to the U.S. economy for every dollar spent on it. “Now, I don’t have an MBA, but that sounds like a good return on investment,” he added.

Highlighting a variety of areas of the economy, President Obama again and again cited Northwestern on subjects ranging from renewable energy and nanotechnology to coding computers, guiding robots and “mastering 3D printers.”

“I know that here at Northwestern, your researchers are working to convert sunlight into liquid fuel -- which sounds impossible, or at least really hard,” he noted, drawing laughter from the audience. “But the good news is, if you need to get the hard or the impossible done, America and American universities are a pretty good place to start.”

Referring to the new digital manufacturing hub his administration has helped launch in Chicago with federal funding, the president said, “We invested in new plants, new technologies, new high-tech hubs like the Digital Manufacturing and Design Institute that Northwestern (LINK) has partnered with in Chicago.”

Directing another observation to Kellogg, he said, “And since we’re here at a business school, I thought it might be useful to point out that Bloomberg, for example, I think came out with an article today saying that corporate balance sheets are the strongest just about that they’ve ever been. Corporate debt is down. Profits are up. Businesses are doing good.”

Criticizing his opponents for calling for more tax cuts, the president again sparked laughter, calling out the Kellogg School by name. “You guys are all smart,” he said. “You do all this analysis. You run the numbers. Has anybody here seen a credible argument that is what our economy needs right now? Seriously.”

The president also drew a particularly enthusiastic response from students in the audience when he talked about access to a college education. “If we make it easier for students to pay off their college loans,” he said, “we’ll help a whole lot of young people breathe easier and feel freer to take the jobs they really want.

“So look, let’s do this -- let’s keep reforming our education system to make sure young people at every level have a shot at success, just like folks at Northwestern do.”

Pat Vaughan Tremmel contributed to this article

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