President Obama at Michigan Commencement

Through your achievements
and your words, you’ve inspired and encouraged our nation to become a more perfect union. In these difficult times, you have challenged us to open our minds and work together
to reach common ground. Your life exemplifies the
power of education to create new opportunities and to offer significant contributions to our society. For all you have accomplished and for your leadership of this great nation, the University of Michigan is deeply honored to present you with the honorary degree, Doctor of Laws. Congratulations. (cheers and applause) Speaker:
By the authority of the state of Michigan vested in the Board of Regents and by them delegated
to me, I now confer upon you, Barack H. Obama, the
degree Doctor of Laws, and admit you to all of its rights, honors, and privileges. And I (inaudible). (cheers and applause) The President:
Thank you. (cheers and applause) Thank you. (cheers and applause) Thank you very much. Thank you. (cheers and applause) Thank you so much. (cheers and applause) Thank you very much; thank you. Thank you, everybody. Please be seated. Audience Member:
We love you! The President:
I love you back. (laughter) It is great to be here
in the Big House — (cheers and applause) — and so may I say, “Go Blue!” (cheers and applause) I thought I’d go for the cheap
applause line to start things off. (laughter) Good afternoon, President
Coleman, the Board of Trustees, to faculty, parents, family and
friends of the class of 2010. (applause) Congratulations on
your graduation, and thank you for allowing me
the honor of being a part of it. (applause) Let me acknowledge your
wonderful governor, Jennifer Granholm — (applause) — your mayor, John Hieftje; and all the members of Congress who are here today. It is a privilege to be with you
on this happy occasion, and, you know, it’s nice to spend
a little time outside of Washington. (laughter) Now, don’t get me wrong — Washington is a beautiful city. It’s very nice living
above the store; you can’t beat the commute. (laughter) It’s just sometimes all you hear
in Washington is the clamor of politics. And all that noise can drown out
the voices of the people who sent you there. So when I took office, I decided
that each night I would read 10 letters out of the tens of
thousands that are sent to us by ordinary Americans every day
— this is my modest effort to remind myself of why I
ran in the first place. Some of these letters tell
stories of heartache and struggle. Some express gratitude,
some express anger. I’d say a good solid
third call me an idiot — (laughter) — which is how I know
that I’m getting a good, representative sample. (laughter and applause) Some of the letters
make you think — like the one that I received
last month from a kindergarten class in Virginia. Now, the teacher of this class
instructed the students to ask me any question they wanted. So one asked, “How
do you do your job?” Another asked, “Do
you work a lot?” (laughter) Somebody wanted to know if I
wear a black jacket or if I have a beard — (laughter) — so clearly they were getting me mixed up with the other tall guy from Illinois. (laughter) And one of my favorites was from
a kid who wanted to know if I lived next to a volcano. (laughter) I’m still trying to piece the
thought process on this one. (laughter) Loved this letter. But it was the last question
from the last student in the letter that gave me pause. The student asked, “Are
people being nice?” Are people being nice? Well, if you turn on the
news today, or yesterday, or a week ago, or a month ago — particularly one of the cable channels — (laughter) — you can see why even a kindergartener would ask this question. (laughter) 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 their arguments as
outrageous and as incendiary as possible. Now, some of this
contentiousness can be attributed to the incredibly
difficult moment in which we find ourselves as a nation. The fact is, when you leave here
today you will search for work in an economy that is still
emerging from the worst crisis since the Great Depression. You live in a century where
the speed with which jobs and industries move across the globe
is forcing America to compete like never before. You will raise your children
at a time when threats like terrorism and climate change
aren’t confined within the borders of any one country. And as our world grows
smaller and more connected, you will live and work with more
people who don’t look like you or think like you or
come from where you do. I really enjoyed Alex’s remarks
because that’s a lot of change. And all these changes,
all these challenges, inevitably cause some
tension in the body politic. They make people worry about the
future and sometimes they get people riled up. But I think it’s important
that we maintain some historic perspective. Since the days of our founding,
American politics has never been a particularly nice business. It’s always been a little less
gentile during times of great change. A newspaper of the opposing
party once editorialized that if Thomas Jefferson were elected,
“Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be
openly taught and practiced.” (laughter) Not subtle. Opponents of Andrew Jackson
often referred to his mother as a “common prostitute,” which
seems a little over the top. (laughter) Presidents from Teddy Roosevelt
to Lyndon Johnson have been accused of promoting
socialism, or worse. And we’ve had arguments between
politicians that have been settled with actual duels. There was even a caning once on
the floor of the United States Senate — which I’m happy to say didn’t happen while I was there. (laughter) It was a few years before. (laughter) The point is, politics has never
been for the thin-skinned or the faint-of-heart, and if
you enter the arena, you should expect
to get roughed up. Moreover, democracy in a nation
of more than 300 million people is inherently difficult. It’s always been noisy and
messy, contentious, complicated. We’ve been fighting about
the proper size and role of government since the days
the Framers gathered in Philadelphia. We’ve battled over the meaning
of individual freedom and equality since the Bill
of Rights was drafted. As our economy has shifted
emphasis from agriculture to industry, to information,
to technology, we have argued and struggled at
each and every juncture over the best way to ensure that all of
our citizens have a shot at opportunity. So before we get too depressed
about the current state of our politics, let’s
remember our history. The great debates of the past
all stirred great passions. They all made somebody angry,
and at least once led to a terrible war. What is amazing is that
despite all the conflict, despite all its flaws
and its frustrations, our experiment in democracy has
worked better than any form of government on Earth. (applause) On the last day of the
Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was famously
asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got — a
republic or a monarchy?” And Franklin gave an answer
that’s been quoted for ages: He said, “A republic,
if you can keep it.” If you can keep it. Well, for more than 200
years, we have kept it. Through revolution and civil
war, our democracy has survived. Through depression and world
war, it has prevailed. Through periods of great
social and economic unrest, from civil rights
to women’s rights, it has allowed us slowly,
sometimes painfully, to move towards a
more perfect union. And so now, class of 2010, the
question for your generation is this: How will you keep
our democracy going? At a moment when our challenges
seem so big and our politics seem so small, how will you keep
our democracy alive and vibrant; how will you keep it
well in this century? I’m not here to offer some
grand theory or detailed policy prescription. But let me offer a few brief
reflections based on my own experiences and the experiences
of our country over the last two centuries. First of all, American democracy
has thrived because we have recognized the need for a
government that, while limited, can still help us adapt
to a changing world. On the fourth panel of the
Jefferson Memorial is a quote I remember reading to my daughters
during our first visit there. It says, “I am not an advocate
for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but…with
the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also
to keep pace with the times.” The democracy designed by
Jefferson and the other founders was never intended to solve
every problem with a new law or a new program. Having thrown off the tyranny
of the British Empire, the first Americans were
understandably skeptical of government. And ever since we’ve held fast
to the belief that government doesn’t have all the answers,
and we have cherished and fiercely defended our
individual freedom. That’s a strand of
our nation’s DNA. But the other strand is the
belief that there are some things we can only do
together, as one nation — and that our government must
keep pace with the times. When America expanded from a few
colonies to an entire continent, and we needed a way
to reach the Pacific, our government helped
build the railroads. When we transitioned from an
economy based on farms to one based on factories, and workers
needed new skills and training, our nation set up a system
of public high schools. When the markets crashed during
the Depression and people lost their life savings, our
government put in place a set of rules and safeguards to make
sure that such a crisis never happened again, and then put a
safety net in place to make sure that our elders would never be
impoverished the way they had been. And because our markets and
financial systems have evolved since then, we’re now putting in
place new rules and safeguards to protect the American people. Now, this notion — (applause) This notion, class, hasn’t always been partisan. It was the first Republican
President, Abraham Lincoln, who said the role of government
is to do for the people what they cannot do better
for themselves. And he’d go on to begin that
first intercontinental railroad and set up the first
land-grant colleges. It was another Republican,
Teddy Roosevelt, who said, “the object of government is
the welfare of the people.” And he’s remembered for using
the power of government to break up monopolies, and establish
our National Park system. (applause) Democrat Lyndon Johnson
announced the Great Society during a commencement
here at Michigan, but it was the Republican
President before him, Dwight Eisenhower, who launched
the massive government undertaking known as the
Interstate Highway System. Of course, there have always
been those who’ve opposed such efforts. They argue 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 of parents, rather than government, in
cultivating a child’s education. And sometimes regulation fails,
and sometimes their benefits don’t justify their costs. But what troubles me is when
I hear people say that all of government is inherently bad. One of my favorite signs during
the health care debate was somebody who said, “Keep Your
Government Hands Out Of My Medicare” — (laughter) — which is essentially saying “Keep Government Out Of My Government-Run
Health Care Plan.” (laughter) When our government is
spoken of as some menacing, threatening foreign entity, it
ignores the fact that in our democracy, government is us. We, the people, hold our — (applause) We, the people, hold in our
hands the power to choose our leaders and change our laws,
and shape our own destiny. Government is the police
officers who are protecting our communities, and the servicemen
and women who are defending us abroad. (applause) 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. (applause) Government is this extraordinary
public university — a place that’s doing
lifesaving research, and catalyzing economic growth,
and graduating students who will change the world around
them in ways big and small. (applause) The truth is, the debate we’ve
had for decades now between more government and less government,
it doesn’t really fit the times in which we live. We know that too much government
can stifle competition and deprive us of choice
and burden us with debt. But we’ve also clearly seen the
dangers of too little government — like when a lack of accountability on Wall Street nearly leads to the collapse
of our entire economy. (applause) So, class of 2010, what we
should be asking is not whether we need “big government”
or a “small government,” but how we can create a
smarter and better government. Because in an era
of iPods and Tivo, where we have more choices
than ever before — even though I can’t really
work a lot of these things — (laughter) — but I have 23-year-olds
who do it for me — (laughter) — government shouldn’t
try to dictate your lives. But it should give you the
tools you need to succeed. Government shouldn’t try
to guarantee results, but it should guarantee a
shot at opportunity for every American who’s
willing to work hard. (applause) So, yes, we can and should
debate the role of government in our lives. But remember, as you are asked
to meet the challenges of our time, remember that the ability
for us to adapt our government to the needs of the age has
helped make our democracy work since its inception. Now, the second way to keep our
democracy healthy is to maintain a basic level of civility
in our public debate. (applause) These arguments we’re having
over government and health care and war and taxes — these
are serious arguments. They should arouse
people’s passions, and it’s important for everybody
to join in the debate, with all the vigor that the
maintenance of a free people requires. But we can’t 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 somebody’s
views and their judgment without questioning their motives
or their patriotism. Throwing around phrases like
“socialists” and “Soviet-style takeover” and “fascist”
and “right-wing nut” — (laughter) — that may grab headlines,
but it also has the effect of comparing our government,
our political opponents, to authoritarian,
even murderous regimes. Now, we’ve 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. But it’s starting to creep into
the center of our discourse. And the problem with it is not
the hurt feelings or the bruised egos of the public officials
who are criticized. Remember, they signed up for it. Michelle always
reminds me of that. (laughter) 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 a “socialist,” or a “right-wing nut,”
or a left-wing nut”? (laughter) 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, the one 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. So what do we do? As I found out after a
year in the White House, changing this type of
politics is not easy. And part of what civility
requires is that we recall the simple lesson most of us learned
from our parents: Treat others as you would like to be treated,
with courtesy and respect. (applause) But civility in this age also
requires something more than just asking if we can’t
just all get along. Today’s 24/7 echo-chamber
amplifies the most inflammatory soundbites louder and
faster than ever before. And it’s also, however, given
us unprecedented choice. Whereas most Americans 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. And this can have both a
good and bad development 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
become more polarized, more set in our ways. 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. Now, this requires us to agree
on a certain set of facts to debate from. That’s why we need a vibrant and
thriving news business that is separate from opinion
makers and talking heads. (applause) That’s why we need an educated
citizenry that values hard evidence and not just assertion. (applause) As Senator Daniel Patrick
Moynihan famously once said, “Everybody is entitled
to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” (laughter) Still, if you’re somebody who
only reads the editorial page of The New York Times, try glancing
at the page of The Wall Street Journal once in a while. 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 be changed. But the practice of listening to
opposing views is essential for effective citizenship. (applause) It is essential
for our democracy. (applause) And so, too, is the practice
of engaging in different experiences with
different kinds of people. I look out at this class and
I realize for four years at Michigan you have been exposed
to diverse thinkers and scholars, professors
and students. Don’t narrow that broad
intellectual exposure just because you’re leaving here. Instead, seek to expand it. If you grew up in a big city,
spend some time with somebody who grew up in a rural town. If you find yourself only
hanging around with people of your own race or
ethnicity or religion, include people in your circle
who have different backgrounds and life experiences. You’ll learn what it’s like to
walk in somebody else’s shoes, and in the process, you will
help to make this democracy work. (applause) Which brings me to the last
ingredient in a functioning democracy, one that’s
perhaps most basic — and it’s already
been mentioned — and that is participation. Class of 2010, I understand that
one effect of today’s poisonous political climate is to push
people away from participation in public life. If all you see when you turn
on the TV is name-calling, if all you hear about is how
special interest lobbying and partisanship prevented
Washington from getting something done, you
might think to yourself, “What’s the point of
getting involved?” Here’s the point. When we don’t pay close
attention to the decisions made by our leaders, when we fail
to educate ourselves about the major issues of the day, when we
choose not to make our voices and opinions heard, that’s
when democracy breaks down. That’s when power is abused. That’s when the most extreme
voices in our society fill the void that we leave. That’s when powerful interests
and their lobbyists are most able to buy access and influence
in the corridors of power — because none of us are there
to speak up and stop them. Participation in public life
doesn’t mean that you all have to run for public office — though we could certainly use some fresh faces in Washington. (laughter and applause) But it does mean that you should pay attention and contribute in any way that you can. Stay informed. Write letters, or make phone
calls on behalf of an issue you care about. If electoral politics
isn’t your thing, continue the tradition so many
of you started here at Michigan and find a way to serve your
community and your country — an act that will help you
stay connected to your fellow citizens and improve the
lives of those around you. It was 50 years ago that a young
candidate for president came here to Michigan and delivered a
speech that inspired one of the most successful service
projects in American history. And as John F. Kennedy described the ideals behind what would become the Peace Corps, he issued a challenge to the students who had assembled in Ann Arbor on that October night: “on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country,” he said, will depend the answer whether a free society can compete. I think it can,” he said. This democracy we have
is a precious thing. For all the arguments and all
the doubts and all the cynicism that’s out there today, we
should never forget that as Americans, we enjoy more
freedoms and opportunities than citizens in any other
nation on Earth. We are free to speak our mind and worship as we please. We are free to
choose our leaders, and criticize them
if they let us down. (applause) We have the chance to get an
education, and work hard, and give our children
a better life. None of this came easy. None of this was preordained. The men and women who sat in
your chairs 10 years ago and 50 years ago and 100 years ago
— they made America possible through their toil and their endurance and their imagination and their faith. Their success, and America’s
success, was never a given. And there is no guarantee that
the graduates who will sit in these same seats 10 years from
now, or 50 years from now, or 100 years from now, will
enjoy the same freedoms and opportunities that you do. You, too, will have to strive. You, too, will have to push
the boundaries of what seems possible. For the truth is, our nation’s
destiny has never been certain. What is certain — what
has always been certain — is the ability to
shape that destiny. That is what makes us different. That is what sets us apart. That is what makes
us Americans — our ability at the end of the
day to look past all of our differences and all of our
disagreements and still forge a common future. That task is now in your hands,
as is the answer to the question posed at this university half a
century ago about whether a free society can still compete. If you are willing, as past
generations were willing, to contribute part of your life
to the life of this country, then I, like President
Kennedy, believe we can. Because I believe in you. (applause) Congratulations on
your graduation, 2010. May God bless you, and may God
bless the United States of America. Thank you. (applause)

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