TODAY   |  June 08, 2010

Obama to high school grads: ‘No excuses’

In his commencement speech to Kalamazoo Central High School graduates in Michigan, the president tells TODAY’s Matt Lauer that he wants to encourage students to “go out there and set your goals and then work for 'em.”

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This content comes from a Full-Text Transcript of the program.

MATT LAUER, co-host: Back now at 7:43 with more of our exclusive interview with President Obama and a bit of a potpourri. As we walked the halls of Kalamazoo Central High School , we talked about why he picked to deliver a commencement address at that school, that blown call during what could have been a perfect game in baseball and much more. So this White House challenge, you had 1,000 schools competing...

President BARACK OBAMA: Yeah.

LAUER: have you give the commencement address.

Pres. OBAMA: Right.

LAUER: Why'd you pick Kalamazoo Central ?

Pres. OBAMA: This school is a great example of what's possible when you've got a public school , it's not in a wealthy community, it is diverse, and yet because the community decided to invest by guaranteeing college tuition for any graduate here we've got teachers and a principal who are dedicated and are willing to think out of the box so they're not just bound by `it's not in my contract,' but they're doing all kinds of extra stuff.

LAUER: You're not going to find a more friendly audience than you're going to have when you give this speech tonight. I watched their enthusiasm when they met you a few minutes ago.

Pres. OBAMA: Right.

LAUER: Your job is to inspire them.

Pres. OBAMA: Absolutely.

LAUER: And give them words of wisdom. What are you going to say to them?

Pres. OBAMA: Well, I have to say, first of all, high school audiences are the toughest, right? Because...


Pres. OBAMA: Well, you know, when you're a teenager you think you know more than just about anybody.

LAUER: Not than the president, though. Probably not.

Pres. OBAMA: The -- but, you know, my main message to these kids is, number one, internalize a sense of excellence. You know, I think most of these kids have had a lot of support telling them do well. But as soon as you get out of here nobody's telling you, and you've got to want that on your own. Second thing I'm going to tell them is no excuses. Take responsibility and go out there and set your goals and then work for them. And understand that stuff doesn't come easy, you got to work at it. This is Derek Jeter 's...

LAUER: Oh, I know.

Pres. OBAMA: ...alma mater, and one of the things I'm going to remind them is, is that guy, you know, shagged a lot of grounders to end up being the captain of the Yankees . And so that's a message. And then the third one is I also want kids to internalize the lesson of their community here, which is give back.

LAUER: Couple of other quick topics.

Pres. OBAMA: Yeah.

LAUER: Helen Thomas , the dean of Washington correspondents, sits in the front row at the press conferences all the time...

Pres. OBAMA: Yeah.

LAUER: ...announced her retirement today after some inflammatory comments about Israeli Jews .

Pres. OBAMA: Yeah.

Ms. HELEN THOMAS: Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine .

LAUER: Your reaction to her retirement, your reaction to her comments?

Pres. OBAMA: Well, the comments were offensive. It's a shame because Helen was somebody who had been a correspondent through I don't know how many presidents, was a real institution in Washington . But I think she made the right decision.

LAUER: And is it something that taints her career, in your opinion?

Pres. OBAMA: Well, I -- you know, I think that those comments were out of line and, you know, hopefully she recognizes that.

LAUER: On a much lighter note, you're a sports fan.

Pres. OBAMA: Yeah.

LAUER: So you must have watched with the rest of us the near perfect game pitched by Armando Galarraga of the Detroit Tigers the other night.

Pres. OBAMA: Brutal.

LAUER: Did Bud Selig make the right call in not awarding a perfect game and reversing Jim Joyce , the umpire's call?

Pres. OBAMA: He made the right call in not awarding the perfect game , but I think that baseball's going to have to take a look at what football and basketball already decided.

LAUER: More replay.

Pres. OBAMA: Which is replay may, in some cases, be appropriate. I'm not advocating for it.

LAUER: Are you a fan of that?

Pres. OBAMA: I'm saying that you may have to take a look at it. But here's -- what was wonderful was how a potentially sour story ended up being, for me, an inspiring story. I think the class with which the pitcher handled it, the way that Joyce owned up to making a mistake, the way the whole team went out there the next day and said, `You know what? We all make mistakes. But you've had a great career as an umpire,' I thought that that showed something about sportsmanship that you don't see enough in America these days.

LAUER: Yeah. For all the times I've had to explain bad sportsmanship to my kids...