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. Tom in Delaware

    Socialist is as socialist does....the shoe fits and you're wearin' it.

    May 1, 2010 07:27 pm at 7:27 pm |
  2. Beth60

    I completely agree with him

    May 1, 2010 07:30 pm at 7:30 pm |
  3. Alex

    Really? “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.” And what about the not-so-long-time-ago case of demonizing George Bush? When it was from the democratic party, it was OK, I haven't heard any objections coming from Obama or anybody else on the left side.

    May 1, 2010 07:37 pm at 7:37 pm |
  4. Morty

    So now Obama has become the great moderator for society? He has lied and lied in the face of previously recorded statements and the media looks the other way. And there is more to come. He has no credibility what so ever. He has been the most devisive President that this country has ever seen. Why shouldn't people be angry at what he calls our government? Congress for the most part does not reflect the will of the electorate that sent them to Washington. It's all about how much will you pay for my vote as opposed to the harm they do to the country and citizens. And for Obama it's how much control he and the government can get over the daily lives of everyone.
    The lack of enforcement of the immigration laws is runing this country. What is it that he can't understand about "illegal"? He will see what real anger is asf this country continues to decline under his so called leadership.

    What a turkey!

    May 1, 2010 07:38 pm at 7:38 pm |
  5. Emmett

    The GOP civil? The Tea Partiers civil? You might as well try to get seaweed to grow in the desert. President Obama has tried repeatedly and the right-wing-nut-jobs have all behaved like spoiled children. You can't have a debate with the GOPers as long as the current group are in there. Perhaps if they're voted out and a new crop of intelligent, adult, mature individuals take their place, a serious debate about serious matters can be undertaken.

    May 1, 2010 07:40 pm at 7:40 pm |
  6. LouAz

    My, oh my. That sounds reasonable. Who is this Guy ?

    May 1, 2010 07:41 pm at 7:41 pm |
  7. Anonymous

    Obama may not be your guy, but he is right that incivility serves destruction, not construction of our society. I truly believe that the plutocracy in this country loves the current rabid discourse because it very successfully distracts from the real problems that we have.

    May 1, 2010 07:43 pm at 7:43 pm |
  8. jenny

    i find it amazing that he has the gall to complain about the anti- government rhetoric when he for the past 2+ years has used his anti-bush rhetoric to slam him and others. i guess he and the democratic party are the only ones that can complain. if the conservatives do we are called fanatics, racist, lunatics and any other deragatory name. i think if he would listen to our concerns and work for the people instead of ignoring us and calling us names the rhetoric would diminish. he is supposed to work for ALL THE PEOPLE, just not a select few

    May 1, 2010 07:43 pm at 7:43 pm |
  9. mh

    Obama is a liar. He wants no debate. He only wants his socialist agenda shoved down the throats of the American people. He is a socialist. We need him out ASAP.

    May 1, 2010 07:45 pm at 7:45 pm |
  10. all of america

    obama dosen't like it when people say those things about being socialist because it's true and he know's it. Its not only the tea partiers but it's a majority of americans who see it that way.The demacrats are power hungry and it shows. we need to remove obama and his followers ,they are leading us down a path to socialist dictatorship ,buy government approved health insurance or get fined or jail, if that's not socialist what is.

    May 1, 2010 07:46 pm at 7:46 pm |
  11. Brynie75

    Well said Mr. President! I think the most important thing he said was that we need responsilble journalists and media. I will try to come up with a more polite name to call the " right wing nuts" 😉

    May 1, 2010 07:46 pm at 7:46 pm |
  12. Dennis

    While civility is a wonderful idea, its practice by this administration is sorely lacking. The backroom deals that resulted in locking out Republican representation during the health care politicking only served to alienate the minority party and intensify any debate that could have been held in a civil manner into explosive confrontation across the media. Obama's statement that the bill should be passed in its flawed state and fixed later only confirms that bipartisan debate was excluded in the process. Transparency in government is the term Obama uses when he wants support, poisonous rhetoric is what these poor students got and had no escape during the tirade. Shameful.

    May 1, 2010 07:49 pm at 7:49 pm |
  13. Jim

    "Take some not so veiled shots at his grassroots conservative critics??" I don't think he was taking shots at all. He was describing what is going on. And I don't sense much of grassroots movement. 1,000 people showing up to Washington hardly makes a movement. We had 200,000 people show up to Washington to push for immigration reform. That is more of a movement.

    May 1, 2010 07:51 pm at 7:51 pm |
  14. cobra

    Obama is a socialist/communist, make now mistake about it. Believe nothing that comes out of his mouth.

    May 1, 2010 07:52 pm at 7:52 pm |
  15. SkiDoc

    Indeed, Graduates.......stay informed: this guy is a raving SOCIALIST!!!

    May 1, 2010 07:52 pm at 7:52 pm |
  16. steveinkc

    Common ploy. Througout history conquerings have always begun with the phrase, "let's compromise".

    May 1, 2010 07:54 pm at 7:54 pm |
  17. Henry Miller, Libertarian, Cary, NC

    We all know what Obama thinks the proper role of government is: to "redistribute the wealth," to tax away every dime from every individual and from every corporation that has a dime to be taxed away, to deny Americans the right to make any important decision in their own lives and to give that power to legions of government bureaucrats. Obama wants to make government the alpha and omega, the be-all and end-all, of American society.

    May 1, 2010 07:55 pm at 7:55 pm |
  18. Anonymous

    Let's see the Presidents critics find fault in a call for civility.
    I'm sure they will.

    May 1, 2010 07:57 pm at 7:57 pm |
  19. Biased

    Hilarious – Obama says "“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.” and he is one of the worst offenders going. His media supporters come in a close second for demonizing the messenger rather than discussing the message. The exact same ones who were critical of republican comments during the Bush years are duplicating that which they say they hate and worse. Never in my life have I heard or seen the term "racist" thrown around as much as it is now to silence any criticism of policy.

    May 1, 2010 07:57 pm at 7:57 pm |
  20. jeff

    guess what Mr. President you are not the favorite one you were over a year ago and hope you learn from what the citizen's are saying but then you would not get to push the OBAMA mission which is not the USA mission.

    May 1, 2010 07:58 pm at 7:58 pm |
  21. cspurgeon

    Totyally right on. Stop the hate...

    May 1, 2010 08:02 pm at 8:02 pm |
  22. It's OK to speak the truth

    Actually there's no longer any need to scream "Socialist!"
    One can now say in a regular tone of voice.

    May 1, 2010 08:03 pm at 8:03 pm |
  23. Micah Akuezue

    I was a student graduating at Umich today and this quite possibly was one of his best, if not his best, speech I've ever heard him give.

    May 1, 2010 08:07 pm at 8:07 pm |
  24. DL13

    Here is the most divisive president ever, using Chicago style politics to suppress his critics.

    May 1, 2010 08:11 pm at 8:11 pm |
  25. usualone

    I wish the President didn't have to do this strategy, but he must as long as those who are opposed to him continue with their strategy of calling him names, etc. It truly consumes time he could be using for bettering the situation of most Americans. It is interesting that all those who say "no" to taking packages of any kind from the government do take it out of necessity. Anyone who says he/she doesn't want government in their lives has only to look at today's headlines where the government has to help with oil spills, saving banks that if they were to fall would help citizens. And those are only two examples. People have to get real and do a check on America's needs. What if we had another Katrina, would anyone say "no" to government help.

    May 1, 2010 08:14 pm at 8:14 pm |
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