Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Monday, May 3, 2010

Obama calls for civility, participation and proper role in government

As he helped send them from under uncertain skies into an uncertain world, President Barack Obama posed a simple challenge to U-M graduates Saturday: “How will you keep our democracy going?”

Watch a video of the commencement ceremony.

Read the text of President Obama's speech.

The third sitting president to address a U-M graduating class, Obama laid out three key points for graduates to keep in mind: government’s helpful role in people’s lives, greater civility in the public discourse, and active participation in the mechanisms of democracy.

He said the last ingredient was perhaps the most basic, yet also the one easily threatened by today’s “poisonous political climate.”

“The point is, 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,” he declared.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm, President Barack Obama and U-M President Mary Sue Coleman share a moment during the commencement ceremony. (Photo by Austin Thomason, U-M Photo Services)

The president’s theme of engagement was a common one among those who addressed the crowd estimated at between 80,000 and 85,000, including about 8,500 graduates that filled the Michigan Stadium field and part of the stands.

U-M President Mary Sue Coleman highlighted U-M’s long tradition of service, which she called “a distinctive hallmark of the University of Michigan experience.”

“Graduates, your community service is praiseworthy and important. It should also be unrelenting. Civic engagement is the foundation of a vibrant, prosperous society, and more than ever, as our neighbors and communities work through this economic downturn, your contributions matter,” she said.

Obama stressed that their participation should be pursued with a spirit of mutual respect, and urged graduates to seek out people different from themselves and ideas other than their own.

“The practice of listening to opposing views is essential to effective citizenship. It is essential for our democracy,” he said. “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.”

“We can’t expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down,” Obama said, decrying the polarizing debate that grabs the most attention in the broadcast, print and Internet media. “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.”

The president was cheered loudly as he strode onto the stage, preceded by Coleman, who reminded the crowd about the enthusiasm that swept across campus the November night in 2008 when Obama was elected.

“Remember the emotion. Remember the joy of running through the streets. Remember being part of something bigger than yourself. That is the feeling of making a difference,” she said.

Obama reiterated that theme, urging the graduates to participate in various levels of the political process.

“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,” he said.

Regarding the role of government, the president said, “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. … Government shouldn’t dictate your lives, but it should give you the tools to succeed.”

“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,” he said.

Although an early morning thunderstorm soaked the stadium as people began filing in around 6:30 a.m., the rain had subsided by the time the ceremony started at 11 a.m. It started an hour later than in previous years to allow time for the larger-than-normal crowd to deal with increased security measures in place for the president’s visit. All visitors had to pass through metal detectors on their way into the Big House.

Obama also was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree. Other honorary degree recipients were Jean Campbell, founder of the Center for the Education of Women; Ornette Coleman, jazz musician; Stanford Ovshinsky, president of Ovshinsky Innovation LLC; Susan Stamberg, public radio broadcast journalist; and Charles Vest, former U-M provost and president of the National Academy of Engineering.

Provost Teresa Sullivan thanked the graduates for “the many contributions you have made to our campus, the community, and the larger world in your time with us.”

“We have welcomed your ideas and been challenged by the questions you have posed to us. We thank you for the opportunity to learn with you and from you. We are confident that with the knowledge and skills you have developed here, you will go forward as the leaders and best of your generation,” she said.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm thanked Obama for supporting Michigan’s auto industry, its economy, its students, and higher education.

Echoing Obama’s presidential campaign theme, LSA graduate Alexander Marston spoke on behalf of the students, urging his classmates to embrace change, with all its attractions and challenges.

“President Obama was elected on his promise of ‘change we can believe in,’ but after he took office, he found many resistances to change. As a nation, we have found that changes can bring us together, and they can tear us apart,” said Marston, an English major from Rockville, Md. “We must embrace change, and realize that with every change comes new opportunity.”