May 1st, 2010
06:18 PM ET
12 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. Thin-Skinned

    It's nice that Obama used a college commencement to take shots at his critics. The guy has no class. He was supposed to be post-partisan and post-racial. He is neither.

    May 1, 2010 06:24 pm at 6:24 pm |
  2. Patty Patriot

    Well, since he put death panels in his obamacrud (or no health care plan) guess you could compare him to a murderous regime. If govt shouldn't dictate our lives then why is obama trying to do just that?

    May 1, 2010 06:26 pm at 6:26 pm |
  3. Mick Russom

    We don't have a democracy, we have a constitutional republic.

    Two wolves and a sheep voting on whats for dinner is democracy. The constitution was put in place to protect us from authoritarians like Obama and his cabal of oligarchical collectivists.

    Again, anyone who says we have a democracy is looking to get 51% to suspend the constitution and turn our last free republic into a dictatorship.

    We've seen this just recently with Hugo Chavez deteriorating into a failed petty dictator. Obama is trying to follow the same route.

    May 1, 2010 06:32 pm at 6:32 pm |

    Someone needs to tell Obama that when you become the president of the greatest country you need to get some thick skin. He needs to stop his whinning and accept that not all people like him.

    May 1, 2010 06:33 pm at 6:33 pm |

    Let them bury themselves Mr.President. Only a very small percent listen to them. They will be rolled over by us again this year.

    May 1, 2010 06:36 pm at 6:36 pm |
  6. Obama is awesome

    Our President is 1000% classier than the tea party creeps who throw around insults, name-calling and ridiculous accusations but have no ideas besides the no taxes, no government policies that brought our country high deficits and economic meltdowns - why would we want more of that? They simply do not get it and look like a bunch of ignorant bullies. I am so glad we have President Obama.

    May 1, 2010 06:36 pm at 6:36 pm |
  7. Brett

    "Smarter and better government" is another way to say bigger government. Why should we expect ever to be a smarter and better government after seeing fiscal debacles such as Amtrak, Post Office, and Social Security. If there were a smarter and better government, we could have fixed Medicare/Medicaid – not created another system that takes over more.

    Smarter and better government was back in the days when the federal government met less frequently (so issues would be resolved) and the states had ability to legislate.

    Smarter and better government is when you don't have to make laws to make illegal actions illegal. It has the ability to enforce laws on the books versus having to make new ones that are silly.

    Smarter and better government doesn't make 2000 page laws.

    Smarter and better government is government that is responsible to the people, not the people to the government.

    May 1, 2010 06:39 pm at 6:39 pm |
  8. Pragmatic

    President Obama is totally correct when he calls for civil discourse.

    Those who use labels, buzzwords & just plain nasty name-calling or not-so-clever plays on the President's name are by-passed by those looking for vigorous debate – without the heated rhetoric.

    May 1, 2010 06:40 pm at 6:40 pm |
  9. Rog

    Obama is really to intelligent for modern day American politics. He will never suceed. Civil debate, facts, research information, weighing our options, doing what is best for the people, doing whats right, thats not for today's America. Sorry Mr. President you are about 70 years to late for a guy like you to lead us. Todays America isn't very bright, opened & can't come up with a thought of their own.

    May 1, 2010 06:40 pm at 6:40 pm |
  10. ckcgye

    While what Obama says sounds good, he himself doesn't live up to it. He and his press secretary Robert Gibbs have taken more pot shots at their political opponents than previous presidents ... case in point, his comments directed at the Supreme Court during the State of the Union Address. If he wants civility, he, Gibbs and Rahm need to set the example.

    May 1, 2010 06:44 pm at 6:44 pm |
  11. Ancient Texan

    Socialist is a possibility....but we'll see as time goes on. But the gist of this speech is, "you people need to be nice and if anybody disagrees with me on specifics, I'm going to get down and dirty with you, especially if you're a member or supporter of the Tea Party movement".

    May 1, 2010 06:46 pm at 6:46 pm |
  12. Bowyourhead

    God bless the president and the United States of America

    May 1, 2010 06:52 pm at 6:52 pm |
  13. Hwy91

    I read the speech in its entirety, and it was truly awe-inspiring. Far from using the speech to "slam the Socialist charges" against him or using "a college commencement address Saturday to promote his view of the role of government", the President used perfectly appropriate language to inspire the graduates to be respectful and to seek civil discourse as a means of debate in our highly charged democracy. Anyone who would vilify him for encouraging such grace and restraint either cannot read, or cannot fathom the virtues he spoke of, or in the worst case, deliberately chooses to misinterpret his intentions.

    May 1, 2010 06:53 pm at 6:53 pm |
  14. Discernment


    Dear Mr. President,

    I'm sure the graduates at Ann Arbor are college trained and have the intelligence to understand the points you are making. But the Tea Party audience beyond Univ. of Michigan are too stupid and to hateful to understand the meaning of "civil discourse". How do I know this? It is in the Bible! The scriptures tell us that mean, evil, hateful folks lack discernment; especially the evil folks that cannot accept Hawaii’s claim that President Obama was born in the United States.

    May 1, 2010 06:54 pm at 6:54 pm |
  15. Greg Harrison

    Obama may not like being called a socialist. However his policies warrant the label. The Wall Sreet bailout and the auto manufactures bailouts can be considered nothing but socialist policies.

    Obama favors the redisrribution of wealth. The best example is the health care bill. Hard working Americans like me and my wife are going to have to help supplement health care coverage for the uninsured. This is classic redistribution of wealth.

    Our country will gradually be destroyed if the agendas of people like Obama, Pelosi, and Reid are pursued and implemented. The citizens of this country need to wake up and vote the rascals out.

    May 1, 2010 06:54 pm at 6:54 pm |
  16. Obama 2012

    You're truly a good man Obama. Despite the fact that the racist can only find psychological discomfort in paying tribute to your efforts to do what's right for the American people. I believe you're a good Christian man who loves God, this country, your family, and has very respectable morals and values. That's why I voted for you. That's why I'll vote for you again. Keep doing what you were called to do. 2012 see ya there.

    May 1, 2010 06:55 pm at 6:55 pm |
  17. John

    All you need to do is see who he has been friends with and the socialistic people he surronds himself with....

    May 1, 2010 06:55 pm at 6:55 pm |
  18. Discernment


    Dear Mr. President,

    I'm sure the graduates at Ann Arbor are college trained and have the intelligence to understand the points you are making. But the Tea Party audience beyond Univ. of Michigan is too stupid and too hateful to understand the meaning of "civil discourse". How do I know this? It is in the Bible! The scriptures tell us that mean, evil, hateful folks lack discernment; especially the evil folks that cannot accept Hawaii’s claim that President Obama was born in the United States.

    May 1, 2010 06:55 pm at 6:55 pm |
  19. Dennis

    Well spoken, however I will not hold my breath. Greed will get in the way of honest debate every time. Just look at what is happening to Financial Reform. The status quo that puts the taxpayer at risk and HUGE BONUSES in pockets of Wall Street is what the Republicans continue to want. Talking about Socialism, we have effectively socialized risk, i.e. Wall Street takes it and the society pays the price, but have privatized profits i.e. only the chosen few reaps the benefits. No wonder the Republicans are stonewalling so bad.

    May 1, 2010 06:55 pm at 6:55 pm |
  20. TTommy

    Obama can deny the "socialist" tag all he wants, but no-one's buying it. Everyone realizes we have elected a closet socialist whether he has the guts to come out and admit it or not. His actions speak louder than his words, which is pretty amazing when you consider these two gems ... "I do think there is a point where someone has made enough money" and "Let's spread the wealth". He gets himself into trouble when he speaks from the heart without his prepared message in front of him. If it looks like a duck, it quacks like a duck, and it walks like a duck, you can be sure .... it's a duck.

    May 1, 2010 06:56 pm at 6:56 pm |
  21. forty

    I cannot believe that the ultra right wing is careless enough to destroy the GOP. Just as Rush Limbaugh promised, he is destroying everything left of the ultra right wing, that includes the vast majority in the middle. All he and his FOX talkies will end up with is an older electorate of white men that accounts for twenty percent of the GOP vote. Take another thirty percent out for Ron Paul and the original tea party, and you have a fractured party.

    Rush, Hannity, Colter, and the ever crazy Glenn Beck will destroy our country. They are bringing fascism to this country and selling it as antifascist. They talk of world record deficits when their boy GWB left this country in shambles.

    May 1, 2010 06:57 pm at 6:57 pm |
  22. Rose

    Wrong place and wrong time for Obama to take shots at his critics, this event was not about him and what people think of him, it was for the graduates. Shame on him, does he honestly believe that EVERYTHING is always about him.

    May 1, 2010 06:57 pm at 6:57 pm |
  23. Fed Up

    OK. What would Mr. Obama call it if he is not a socialist? He has publicly stated that he wants to take from the rich and give to the poor. Sounds like Russia to me. Oops, but that's only if the rich aren't the big banks that give huge donations to his campaign.

    May 1, 2010 06:58 pm at 6:58 pm |
  24. Rob

    The real problem that President Obama has in governing effectively is his lack of demonstrated past business acumen. His entire persona has been shaped by the handouts he received from birth through college that were awarded based solely on the color of his skin, socio- economic status, intellect, etc. He will never have a frame of reference that can make him understand what it means to NOT receive government assistance and favoritism as an entitlement. Sadly, he doesn't seem willing to seek such enlightenment either, which is why he is destined to one and only one term like Carter.

    May 1, 2010 06:58 pm at 6:58 pm |
  25. art in kingwood

    However you want to slice and dice it Barry. Would Alinskyite be more appropriate. Perhaps Marxist Leninist. You are a radical the likes unseen in this country.

    May 1, 2010 06:58 pm at 6:58 pm |
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