President Barack Obama, whose re-election campaign is counting on support from women and young voters, told Barnard College graduates today that they must be active shapers of the nation’s future.


While the president sought to avoid an overtly political message, he used the address to the all-women liberal arts college in Morningside Heights to implore younger voters, and women in particular, to remain active participants in society.


“You are now poised to make this the century when women shape not only their own destiny, but the destiny of this nation and this world,” said Obama today in the speech. “Don’t just get involved. Fight for your seat at the table. Better yet, fight for a seat at the head of the table.”


Interestingly, it was Obama who requested to give the commencement address at Barnard. He asked the school if he could speak there in February, forcing Jill Abramson, the first woman to be executive editor of The New York Times, and who had been scheduled to speak, to step aside.


“This is the campaign’s getting-started phase and getting the troops ready for the war,” said Julian Zelizer, a public affairs professor at Princeton of Obama's speech today.


Today’s speech is Obama’s first commencement address of the season. Obama is reaching out to younger voters and women, two groups that helped solidify his 2008 victory and will be critical this year in his contest against presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

Obama is trying to recapture the enthusiasm his campaign generated four years ago at a time when college graduates are entering a still sluggish economy. The unemployment rate has increased among younger Americans, even though it’s declined to 8.1 percent nationally. The April jobless rate for 20-24 year olds was 13.2 percent, an increase from 12.4 percent since Obama took office.

Romney discusses abortion

Obama’s advantage among female voters over Romney is giving him an edge in polls. According to a May 9 Associated Press-GfK poll, Obama has the backing of 54 percent of women voters compared to Romney’s 39 percent. By contrast, men were split at 46 percent for each candidate.

The gap among women poses a major electoral hurdle to the Republican’s chances of winning the White House. To keep that margin as wide as possible, Obama’s campaign aides are looking to highlight the president’s record on women’s rights and hold Romney to the more conservative stances he took on women’s health and other social issues during the Republican primary.

To appeal to the Republican Party base and evangelical voters, Romney cited his opposition to abortion rights, saying he wanted to “get rid” of Planned Parenthood and he also voiced support for allowing some employers to deny health insurance coverage for contraception.

Rest of Obama's schedule in New York today

At Barnard, Obama — who Newsweek called the nation's first gay president today — received a Medal of Distinction, along with Evan Wolfson, a gay rights advocate, who is the founder and president of Freedom to Marry.

Later today in New York, Obama will also tape an appearance on ABC’s “The View” and attend two campaign fundraisers with donors from Wall Street and the gay community.

Obama will raise money at the home of Tony James, president of Blackstone Group LP, the world’s largest private-equity firm, and attend an event hosted by pop singer Ricky Martin, marking the first gay- rights fundraiser since last week’s announcement.