POTUS In The Big House: Barack Obama Commencement Speaker at The University of Michigan

Hope and change were two big themes at the University of Michigan 2010 commencement in Ann Arbor Saturday morning as President Barack Obama gave the commencement speech. Several of those speaking prior to Obama discussed hope and change, relating it to both national policy and the changes in the University of Michigan football program in recent years.

Governor Jennifer Granholm thanked Obama for supporting the auto industry and other measures to help the economy recover. She also thanked Obama for delivering on many promises such as health care, along with thanking him for coming to Michigan rather than that school to the south.

Prior to speaking, President Obama was awarded an honorary Doctor of Law degree. Obama began by saying “Go Blue” as he admitted he was going for the “cheap applause line to start things off.” He discussed letters he reads to remain in touch with the world outside of Washington, including ones from children:

But it was the last question in the letter that gave me pause. The student asked, “Are people being nice?”

Well, if you turn on the news today – particularly one of the cable channels – you can see why even a kindergartener would ask this question. We’ve got politicians calling each other all sorts of unflattering names. Pundits and talking heads shout at each other. The media tends to play up every hint of conflict, because it makes for a sexier story – which means anyone interested in getting coverage feels compelled to make the most outrageous comments.

He noted that this is nothing new with political conflict being common through our history. Obama cited accomplishments of previous presidents of both parties, and those who opposed them, along with the proper role of government:

Of course, there have always been those who’ve opposed such efforts. They argue that government intervention is usually inefficient; that it restricts individual freedom and dampens individual initiative. And in certain instances, that’s been true. For many years, we had a welfare system that too often discouraged people from taking responsibility for their own upward mobility. At times, we’ve neglected the role that parents, rather than government, can play in cultivating a child’s education. Sometimes regulation fails, and sometimes its benefits do not justify its costs.

But what troubles me is when I hear people say that all of government is inherently bad. One of my favorite signs from the health care debate was one that read “Keep Government Out Of My Medicare,” which is essentially like saying “Keep Government Out Of My Government-Run Health Care.” For when our government is spoken of as some menacing, threatening foreign entity, it conveniently ignores the fact in our democracy, government is us. We, the people, hold in our hands the power to choose our leaders, change our laws, and shape our own destiny.

Government is the police officers who are here protecting us and the service men and women who are defending us abroad. Government is the roads you drove in on and the speed limits that kept you safe. Government is what ensures that mines adhere to safety standards and that oil spills are cleaned up by the companies that caused them. Government is this extraordinary public university – a place that is doing life-saving research, catalyzing economic growth, and graduating students who will change the world around them in ways big and small.

The truth is, the debate we’ve had for decades between more government and less government doesn’t really fit the times in which we live. We know that too much government can stifle competition, deprive us of choice, and burden us with debt. But we’ve also seen clearly the dangers of too little government – like when a lack of accountability on Wall Street nearly led to the collapse of our entire economy.

So what we should be asking is not whether we need a “big government” or a “small government,” but how we can create a smarter, better government. In an era of iPods and Tivo, where we have more choices than ever before, government shouldn’t try to dictate your lives. But it should give you the tools you need to succeed. Our government shouldn’t try to guarantee results, but it should guarantee a shot at opportunity for every American who’s willing to work hard.

Obama discussed the lack of civility and some of the more extreme and absurd attacks:

But we cannot expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down. You can disagree with a certain policy without demonizing the person who espouses it. You can question someone’s views and their judgment without questioning their motives or their patriotism. Throwing around phrases like “socialist” and “Soviet-style takeover;” “fascist” and “right-wing nut” may grab headlines, but it also has the effect of comparing our government, or our political opponents, to authoritarian, and even murderous regimes.

Again, we have seen this kind of politics in the past. It’s been practiced by both fringes of the ideological spectrum, by the left and the right, since our nation’s birth.

The problem with it is not the hurt feelings or the bruised egos of the public officials who are criticized.

The problem is that this kind of vilification and over-the-top rhetoric closes the door to the possibility of compromise. It undermines democratic deliberation. It prevents learning – since after all, why should we listen to a “fascist” or “socialist” or “right wing nut?” It makes it nearly impossible for people who have legitimate but bridgeable differences to sit down at the same table and hash things out. It robs us of a rational and serious debate that we need to have about the very real and very big challenges facing this nation. It coarsens our culture, and at its worst, it can send signals to the most extreme elements of our society that perhaps violence is a justifiable response.

Obama talked about how the echo chamber can lead to greater polarization, advising people to pay attention to sources with other views. For example, he advised fans of Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh to read The Huffington Post, and those who read The New York Times to read The Wall Street Journal, even if it makes their blood boil.

Today’s twenty-four seven echo chamber amplifies the most inflammatory soundbites louder and faster than ever before. It has also, however, given us unprecedented choice. Whereas most of America used to get their news from the same three networks over dinner or a few influential papers on Sunday morning, we now have the option to get our information from any number of blogs or websites or cable news shows.

This development can be both good and bad for democracy. For if we choose only to expose ourselves to opinions and viewpoints that are in line with our own, studies suggest that we will become more polarized and set in our ways. And that will only reinforce and even deepen the political divides in this country. But if we choose to actively seek out information that challenges our assumptions and our beliefs, perhaps we can begin to understand where the people who disagree with us are coming from.

This of course requires that we all agree on a certain set of facts to debate from, and that is why we need a vibrant and thriving news business that is separate from opinion makers and talking heads. As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

Still, if you’re someone who only reads the editorial page of The New York Times, try glancing at the page of The Wall Street Journal once in awhile. If you’re a fan of Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, try reading a few columns on the Huffington Post website. It may make your blood boil; your mind may not often be changed. But the practice of listening to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship.

Obama encouraged the graduating students to be involved in public life. He cited John F. Kennedy speaking in Ann Arbor fifty years ago describing “the ideals behind what would become the Peace Corps.”

Before the conclusion of the commencement ceremony, Barack Obama was called upon again. In his role of Commander in Chief, President Obama swore in the members of the ROTC.

Videos of the speech are available here and here.  The full text is available here.

Go Blue!

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    Ron Chusid says:

    POTUS In The Big House: Barack #Obama Commencement Speaker at The University of Michigan http://is.gd/bQAej #p2

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