May 1st, 2010
06:18 PM ET
4 years ago

Obama calls for civil debate, takes shots at critics


(CNN) – President Obama used a college commencement address Saturday to promote his view of the role of government, emphasize the need for civility in political discussion and to take some not so veiled shots at his grassroots conservative critics.

After a year in which Obama has seen his approval ratings slide and the conservative grassroots movement rise to prominence, the president used part of the nearly 30-minute speech at the University of Michigan to lay out his vision for how political debate ought to transpire.

Obama told graduating students in Ann Arbor that the current political debates “are serious arguments.”

“It’s important for everyone to join in the debate, with all the vigor that the maintenance of a free people requires,” he said.

But Obama added that a passionate debate must also be a civil one.

“We can’t expect to solve our problems, if all we do is tear each other down,” the president said. “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.”

In a clear reference to criticisms directed at him by Tea Party activists, Obama said “throwing around phrases like ‘socialist, Soviet-style takeover, fascist, and right-wing nut,’ that may grab headlines. But it also has the effect of comparing our government - our political opponents – to authoritarian and even murderous regimes.”

Such heated rhetoric is problematic, the president said, because instead of remaining at the ideological extremes where it has historically been, “it’s starting to creep into the center of our discourse.”

Obama added, “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.”

And the president cautioned that the current climate of hated political rhetoric could have even more dangerous effects. “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 also said another part of the solution to the problems presented by the current political climate is for the public to become more informed in order to get beyond the never-ending news cycle of cable television and the internet. As citizens we need to “actively seek out information that challenges our assumptions and our beliefs,” the president said.

“It may make your blood boil; your mind may not be changed. But the practice of listening to opposing views is essential to effective citizenship – it is essential for our democracy.”

On the role and size of government, Obama invoked the past efforts of Republican presidents – Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower – who initiated massive projects intended to promote the public welfare.

Obama told the graduates that, historically, there have always been those who opposed such large-scale governmental efforts.

“But what troubles me is when I hear people say that all of government is inherently bad,” Obama said Saturday.

The president added, “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 in our hands, the power to choose our leaders and change our laws, and shape our own destiny.”

Obama told the students that government was all around them in the protection of police officers and the U.S. military, the roads they drive, and the public university they have been attending.

“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,” said Obama, who then pointed to the recent excesses of Wall Street as an example of “the dangers of too little government.”

“So, Class of 2010, what should be asking is not whether we need ‘big government or a ‘small government,’ but how we can create a smarter and better government.”

And Obama presented his own vision what such a government would do. “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.”

And in a reference to how two recent disasters that have spotlighted the federal government’s role in regulating industry, Obama also told the graduates “Government is what ensures that mines adhere to safety standards and that oil spills are cleaned up by the companies that cause them.”

soundoff (161 Responses)
  1. Obama is ONE and DONE.....

    he's becoming very defensive and demonizes anyone who disagrees with his socialist programs...

    May 1, 2010 07:00 pm at 7:00 pm |
  2. ds

    Obama, you are DONE. If you had any integrity at all, you would step down now. You have angered the American people and we want you out of office. If we have to wait till the next election, so be it, but you will be out of office and your little democrat society will be put to shame. Be gone.

    May 1, 2010 07:01 pm at 7:01 pm |
  3. Franklin

    All this coming from the man that accused police of acting "stupidly" when admitting that he didn't have the facts to make such a remark!

    May 1, 2010 07:01 pm at 7:01 pm |
  4. Mickey, NY

    These "pseudo-patriots" do not want civil debate...they exist of off fear, hatred and bigotry. Nothing will change with them...unusual demands propagated by an even more unusual stance by the GOP: NOTHING

    May 1, 2010 07:03 pm at 7:03 pm |
  5. Franklin

    Way to take a graduation hostage and turn it into a political debate, COMMUNITY ORGANIZOR!!

    May 1, 2010 07:03 pm at 7:03 pm |
  6. TOTUS FOR PRESIDENT

    Why the problem in describing Obama as a socialist if: 1) he hangs out with avowed socialists; 2) says he is in favor of "spreading the health" and that people reach a point in which they "make enough money"; 3) actively implemented government takeovers of formerly free enterprises, with more to come; 4) apologizes to the world for "America's horrible past"; and 5) cow-tows to the worst (non-democratic) regimes in the world while ripping our (democratic) allies. How else would you describe this behavior?

    May 1, 2010 07:05 pm at 7:05 pm |
  7. ds

    Obama, you are DONE. If you had any integrity at all, you would step down now. You have angered the American people and we want you out of office. If we have to wait till the next election, so be it, but you will be out of office and your little democrat society will be put to shame. Be gone.

    May 1, 2010 07:05 pm at 7:05 pm |
  8. Marc

    Obama is not a socialist. I am a socialist. I believe in a national salary cap and a fully encapsulating safety net that does not allow for homelessness, poverty, or the lack of medical care for anyone in this country. He does not propose any of these things nor will he.....ever.

    May 1, 2010 07:09 pm at 7:09 pm |
  9. Noble

    “Government shouldn’t try to dictate your lives. " Like by saying we HAVE to buy health insurance.

    "but it should guarantee a shot at opportunity for every American who’s willing to work hard.” And when by some miracle they succeed Tax them to pay for insurance for people who don't work for them.

    “The problem is that this kind of vilification and over-the-top rhetoric closes the door to the possibility of compromise." Like everything that was (as is still being) said against George Bush. I seem to remember a certian Senator from Illinois throwing a few stones in that direction.

    Hipocrite.

    May 1, 2010 07:10 pm at 7:10 pm |
  10. kelly

    HE is going to go down in history as the Greatest President ."EVER"
    Even my teacher havent been so inspiring .....
    People like sarah palin,and etc............. names that don't even deserve a capital.
    They r germs of this political decade, hatred people...
    cant help the country cant help themselves.

    May 1, 2010 07:10 pm at 7:10 pm |
  11. Steven M.

    My thoughts precisely, Mr. President. You have my whole-hearted support. I am glad to see a President take office and grab the bull by the horns and at least try to do SOMETHING positive. I admire your conviction and determination. You remind me of ME~ Best Wishes to you

    May 1, 2010 07:11 pm at 7:11 pm |
  12. Fed Up!

    A good call, but civility does not suite the purposes and ultimate goals of conservative Republicans.

    May 1, 2010 07:14 pm at 7:14 pm |
  13. Flipper

    Obama and the Democrats have become a bunch of weak-kneed hypocrits. During the Bush administration, some of the most disgusting, treasonous, intellectually dishonest things were directed towards the government by Democrats. Where was the concern about "civility" then? Nowhere to be found!

    And who really is being uncivil now? What do many Dems label participants in the Tea Parties as? That's right...racist. What do many Dems label people who support the recent illegal immigrant law in Arizona? Right again...racist! What do many Dems call white Americans who disagree with the Obama administration? Do you see a pattern emerging? You're not the only one.

    And I thought that dissent was the "highest form of patriotism." I guess that's not the case if the Dems are in charge.

    May 1, 2010 07:14 pm at 7:14 pm |
  14. Djinn

    But Prez, it is SO easy to slip into invective when the wing-nuts just blabber Fox talking points with no substantive facts. When Beck can tell outright lies and not be prosecuted, one simply wants to spit venom at him and the backward oafs who listen and believe.

    May 1, 2010 07:15 pm at 7:15 pm |
  15. ib

    Hey Obama; tell the far left to get civil; they are the ones spewing most of the hate and racist themes on these posts and it is about big gov. taking controll of everything in our lives.

    May 1, 2010 07:15 pm at 7:15 pm |
  16. Pelosi is a see-you-en-tea

    TOTALLY missed the purpose of why he was guest speaking!!! I would be highly irrate if I was a graduating member of this class. What did any of this have to do with inspiring graduates to go out into the world and make the best of their lives??!!! Even GWB is smart enough to not give a speach about government disatisfaction and cable news bias at a college graduation.

    May 1, 2010 07:18 pm at 7:18 pm |
  17. George of the jungle

    So glad we have a smart articulate president who can weater the rants of these people who holler socislist and have no clue what that really means. Sometimes think he is the only real grown up in Washington. Can not believe fox is trying to make it look like the oil spill is somehow the presidents fault. The president makes so much sense that repos look like fools each time they go up againts him

    May 1, 2010 07:19 pm at 7:19 pm |
  18. Welcome to Oblahblah's Banana Republic

    the president said. “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.”
    You need to listen to the words coming out of your own mouth you crooked thug. You and your regime demonize ANYone that opposes your crooked policies and administration. You purposely target and demonize everyone.
    These graduates were there and should have been told how great America is and how they can work to make it better. Of course you had to turn it into a whine fest and again make it about you. For once in your life can't you keep your whining at home and think of others and what the occasion is about?

    May 1, 2010 07:19 pm at 7:19 pm |
  19. John

    Now if Obama would just practice what he's preaching here maybe I'd buy the line he's feeding these kids.

    Obama, and his cronies, have spent his entire presidency demonizing anyone who has the nerve to oppose anyting Obama wants and now he has the nerve to say that people shouldn't demonize opponents? LOL!

    May 1, 2010 07:21 pm at 7:21 pm |
  20. sifto77

    What goes around comes around–Obama is getting a taste of his own medicine–slamming Bush for 3 years–I wonder how he enjoys being slammed?! Not so easy being POTUS– as he thought when he was a candidate and all of his followers got all teary at the idea of an" Historical Pres".....

    May 1, 2010 07:21 pm at 7:21 pm |
  21. Roger

    Obama should just look in the mirror and he will see the answers to our political disgrace. If he would only resort to the truth and avoid his doubletalk and deception our Nation's problem can be solved. His agenda is self evident and then that is when he tries to be the innocent peacemaker. It didn't take long for the American people to get wise to you, Obama.

    May 1, 2010 07:22 pm at 7:22 pm |
  22. Ray Hoskins

    He needs to talk about this more often. The degradation in political process this last year has been shameful.

    May 1, 2010 07:23 pm at 7:23 pm |
  23. Gasman

    Shame on you CNN. You state that "the conservative grassroots movement rise to prominence" but that is ONLY because CNN and other MSM outlets have chosen to elevate the status of the Tea Party, When considered by the actual number of members, the Tea Party shrinks into insignificance.

    Furthermore, there is NOTHING grassroots about this movement. It is funded and hyped by some of the biggest corporate interests in this country to the tune of tens of millions of dollars – if not more. Your characterization of this movement is demonstrably false.

    May 1, 2010 07:23 pm at 7:23 pm |
  24. bryan

    "we need to you know spread the wealth"

    some words speak for themselves

    May 1, 2010 07:23 pm at 7:23 pm |
  25. NancyLV

    Obama only says these things but does not practice what he preaches. He made 5 million last year and he says "you can make too much money" well how much is too much? 5 million is too much to me and I did not see him giving it all away or telling his rich friends to give theirs away. He is hypicrite and I pray that most of America will see this in 2012.

    May 1, 2010 07:25 pm at 7:25 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7