May 1st, 2010
06:18 PM ET
13 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. Michael

    You tell 'em Obama, government was only inherently bad when Bush was president and you needed to be elected to save us from ourselves.

    May 1, 2010 10:53 pm at 10:53 pm |
  2. Steve

    This guy will stop at nothing. Obama and his stormtroopers shouted down critics during the election and have taken over the U.S. car, banking, and healthcare industries, and have demonized the very concept of operating a for-profit company. Now he doesn't like criticism because his air-headed supporters are starting to wake up. This guy isn't just a socialist, he's a 3rd world dictator wanna-be who needs to be turned out of office ASAP. What's next, censoring the press?

    May 1, 2010 11:05 pm at 11:05 pm |
  3. Jim Steichen

    Well then, let's just call Him a Fabianist and avid Supporter of the Cloward-Pevin Strategy - the label doesn't change the effects!

    May 1, 2010 11:06 pm at 11:06 pm |
  4. Master of Deception

    “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.” – Obama

    Obama is the master of deception.

    Now he is trying to sound like Sarah Palin

    Obama, I listen to Sarah Palin and you are no Sarah Palin.

    Obama is the master olf

    May 1, 2010 11:07 pm at 11:07 pm |
  5. Some dude

    He is a socialist. He's telling these kids they shouldn't question having bigger government? Nonsense. Of course they should. He just says that because he wants bigger government. What a sheister. This guy acts like he cares about people but he really doesn't. He just has these grand socialist ideals which he wants to force on America. A bunch of garbage people never wanted. Serves them right I guess for voting for him. They hated Bush so much they voted for this incompetent fool and a bunch of other democrat losers in the house and senate. "Anyone but Bush", right? Now we have this stooge to really muck things up.

    May 1, 2010 11:08 pm at 11:08 pm |
  6. Independent_me

    And the President is right...
    A house divided against itself cannot stand.
    The republicans started the nasty labeling and calling people who did not agree with them "un-American" and "unpatriotic". This has got to stop before they drive the country into another civil war.

    May 1, 2010 11:09 pm at 11:09 pm |
  7. Julian E

    Now you are speaking my language. Enlightened them, or they, too, will be confused from the extremist propaganda that is so prevalent in mainstream America today, and act in ignorance against all norms of civility.

    May 1, 2010 11:10 pm at 11:10 pm |
  8. jerry

    Surely, by now Obama should realize there are many simplistic people who are subject to be carriers of the stupid rhetoric initiated by the opposition party. That is just part of the political game. However, it is very counter productive.

    May 1, 2010 11:25 pm at 11:25 pm |
  9. John B.

    Well at least Obama now agrees that there should be a discussion. Not too long ago he suggested that his opposition should just sit down and shut up. I always look forward to the rare instances where he is allowed to talk from his heart and not the teleprompter. That is when we "learn" the most. I believe the Prez is more inclined to use government as tool to force "fairness" by redistributing wealth and opportunity. He is a long way from adhering to the hopes of our founding fathers, which was to limit the government's role in our daily lives. He is also unrealistic in his belief that government can successfully manage society. There is also a very valid belief that many of our governmental officials are corrupt and immoral. Not ALL of government is inherently bad, just MOST of it.

    May 1, 2010 11:36 pm at 11:36 pm |
  10. gary tessler

    The Republican Party and those in the so called Tea Party are, in my view, either totally ignorant of communism, socialism, totalitarianism or for that matter, the history of our American governmental system or they are practicing sedition against the government. In any event they represent the very worst in American politics. They should be ashamed of themselves.

    May 1, 2010 11:43 pm at 11:43 pm |
  11. Amanda

    Will this bloviated fool ever shut up?

    May 2, 2010 04:29 am at 4:29 am |
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