And in a nod to the recent killing of Osama bin Laden, the president said they would soon join a military and intelligence community that made sure "the terrorist leader who attacked us on 9/11 will never threaten America again." But Obama never mentioned bin Laden by name, nor did he delve into al-Qaeda or the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Instead, the president focused on global alliances and American ideals in his address to the 228 young men and women seated in their dress whites in the U.S. Coast Guard Academy's Leamy Hall.
Even in difficult times — of war and economic plight — "we remember our moral compass," Obama said. "That we are citizens with obligations to each other... That we rise and fall as one."
PHOTOS: President Obama Arrives For Graduation Ceremony
PHOTOS: Obama In Connecticut
PHOTOS: Presidential Visits To Connecticut
Obama's 20-minute speech, while low on war rhetoric, was the third wartime address by an American commander-in-chief to graduating Coast Guard cadets in the past decade.
The commencement marked a full circle for the newly commissioned ensigns, 14 of whom are Connecticut natives. They included David Nielsen, 21, of Middletown, who was a middle-schooler when terrorists attacked the country on Sept. 11, 2001, and has lived through dual wars and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, which the graduates have now joined.
In 2003, former President George W. Bush's commencement address at the Coast Guard Academy came two months after the start of the Iraq War, when many of Wednesday's graduates were just finishing the eighth grade. That year, about 50 demonstrators carried anti-Bush signs under a cold rain outside the academy's main gates.
Bush's speech in 2007, persistently linking al-Qaeda to the war in Iraq, drew roughly 1,000 anti-war protesters to the riverside New London campus.
On Wednesday morning, two hours before the graduation was scheduled to begin, the only sign that could be seen belonged to a lone elderly woman with an affable message: "Welcome President Obama."
Obama landed in Connecticut aboard Air Force One at 10:03 a.m. at the Air National Guard base in East Granby. He received a warm reception in New London despite arriving 45 minutes late for the commencement, which was originally set for Cadet Memorial Field but was moved indoors under the threat of rain.
Last year, in a keynote address at the U.S. Military Academy graduation in West Point, N.Y., Obama defended the war in Afghanistan and then, in a rejection of his predecessor's foreign policy, outlined a national security approach that stressed global partnerships and diplomacy over pre-emptive war.
At the Coast Guard Academy on Wednesday, Obama again sought to elevate the country's moral standing in the world.
"The arc of your careers, like the course of our country, will be shaped by the values that have kept us strong for more than 200 years," said Obama, who is scheduled to deliver a major speech on American policy in the Middle East on Thursday. "We haven't always been the biggest or strongest of nations.
"There have been moments in our history when others have counted us out or predicted the demise of our improbable American experiment. What the naysayers and doubters have never understood is that our American journey has always been propelled by a spirit and strength that sets us apart."
Minutes earlier, Obama continued a presidential tradition when he jokingly absolved the cadets of any outstanding "minor" infractions. He also gave special acknowledgments to graduates Jennifer Proctor, who attended Obama's old high school in Honolulu, and Melissa McCafferty, the recipient of the academy's third Truman Scholarship in three years.
"Where's Melissa, let me embarrass you," said Obama, scanning the crowd.
As with a traditional graduation speech, the president also pointed out the proud relatives in Leamy Hall, telling the cadets, "When you chose this life of service, your families backed you up. When you thought you couldn't go on, they bucked you up. I suspect, when things got a little tight in the money department, they coughed it up."
Most of the graduates will now report to cutters in coastal areas such as Alameda, Calif., Key West, Fla., and Kodiak, Alaska. Nielsen, the Middletown native, will be based at the Coast Guard Cutter Seneca in Boston. Others are assigned to sectors around the country, and 20 will begin flight training in Pensacola, Fla.
Two are international cadets who will return to their home countries. New Ensign Jefferson Bobo of the Marshall Islands was given his oath by President Jurelang Zedkaia of the small Pacific Island nation, seated alongside Gov. Dannel P. Malloy on the auditorium stage and within several feet of Obama and U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
Later, the stage almost resembled the scene of a typical commencement, with the graduates smiling for cameras as they received their commissions.
Except they were shaking hands with — and sometimes hugging — the president of the United States.
Courant staff writer David Owens contributed to this report.