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. ToughLove

    In one year the President has ventured into several extremes–his specific type of health care reform, trillions in additional debt, calling out a specific news outlet that disagrees with him, etc. You may agree with what he has done...but no one can say it has not been fairly radical (very different rom the status quo). This radical approach is going to invite equally strong opposition...and I think it's appropriate. I think our President's too thin-skinned and concerned with image for the job he's trying to accomplish.

    May 1, 2010 08:17 pm at 8:17 pm |
  2. Keith

    Apparently, you shouldn't listen to people that say the government is turning socialist when it passes laws that oppose the will of the people but call it "democratic" even though they oppose the will of the people. A majority of the people oppose the health reform that was passed congress. A majority of people oppose funding failed businesses.A majority of people oppose giving away their hard earned money to companies that laid them off but people in charge don't. Therefore, if you were laid off by a company this year, you're more than likely paying taxes that pay for them to stay in business.

    May 1, 2010 08:17 pm at 8:17 pm |
  3. JJ

    Oh yes, when he and his thugs in the communist press spew venom at Sarah Palin, he "asks" for a "civil debate."

    The Kenyan doesn't know obviously what a "civil debate" is all about. But he knows that there are 57 States in the Union, and that Austrians speak Austrian.

    May 1, 2010 08:18 pm at 8:18 pm |
  4. whaley41

    We are informed! That's why we question the government. Didn't you dems and liberals encourage the hippies of the 60's to "question authority"? But it's different now that average, conservative Americans question authority, huh!

    May 1, 2010 08:22 pm at 8:22 pm |
  5. Nyarlathotep

    Methinks the King protests too much over the "socialist" assessment.

    May 1, 2010 08:23 pm at 8:23 pm |
  6. Linda

    Instead of encouraging the Grads to be proud of themselves and go after their dreams, he's trying to steer them away from criticizing government. An entirely self-serving speech that should have been all about the Grads. Poor form. Save the campaigning for your own time!

    May 1, 2010 08:27 pm at 8:27 pm |
  7. Ruty

    Amen brother. You got it right when you said to stay informed and you can't serve this country by tearing every one apart and putting them down. Keep up the good work. If we work together–this country can be repaired.

    May 1, 2010 08:29 pm at 8:29 pm |
  8. Marcus

    Remember that incident with Al Franken at that Annual State Fair (or the likes) last year?
    Al Franken was attending that fair and walking around when suddenly he found himself surrounded by people who wanted to question him about the (then) Dems ideas for a Health Care Reform and other 'problems' (in those people's points of view) regarding the Obama presidency.
    Al Franken listened and talked and while some of those people still walked out of the fair (on their own without being 'escorted' by the police) with the same points that they had walked in with, they had had their answers (and some data to check).
    It is possible a civilized debate/exchange of ideas between Democrats and Republicans and Third Partiers.
    Even with the fringe groups (on both sides of the political spectrum) trying to make that impossible.

    May 1, 2010 08:35 pm at 8:35 pm |
  9. Marc Condos

    Funny, I don't recall the left being so concerned about civility when Bush was in office.

    May 1, 2010 08:39 pm at 8:39 pm |
  10. Brian

    This Obama is Socialist nonsense is Pathetic-– Once and for all pea brains -– Socialist's do not Bail out Wall Street and Our Banks !!! To a Socialist Wall Street is the epitome of Capitalist Greed!!! How has America become a Nation of Simpletons? - Tossed to, and fro, by sound bites /Misinformation/Spin, Goebbels style Partisan Propaganda etc. One could see the ignorant masses reveling in another Mccarthyistic Commie hunt!!! My God - How have we become a Nation of so many Fools?- Birthers, and Marxist conspiracy nuts- Who wouldn't know a Socialist if one was in the room!!! The Press is complicit in not calling these ignorant liars what they are- Dumb Seditionists!!!!

    May 1, 2010 08:40 pm at 8:40 pm |
  11. Anonymous

    The speech the President was right on. He hit the point that Democrats and Republicans should stop throwing those nasty words around and sit down and solve the propblems of America. No matter what he propose to help the american people, the republicans try and demonize it by calling him a socialist. They should remember that we are paying them to help solve problems not to create them. We americans will remember your record in November.

    May 1, 2010 08:41 pm at 8:41 pm |
  12. D. Tree

    This President practices what he preaches. Despite the nasty things is critics say about him, he still gives them credit for their views and turns the other cheek. He leads by example, and it makes me proud as an American – but we cannot expect everyone to follow his example. Unfortunately there will always be a faction in our country that will never give him credit for his leadership, that will call him unamerican, and that will never admit the deep sense of patriotism and American Exceptionalism our President exemplifies in his words and actions.

    May 1, 2010 08:47 pm at 8:47 pm |
  13. Sternberg

    Mr. Obama certainly feels that it is his right to demonize and trivialize and misstate the concerns of his opponents.
    We do need to keep ourselves informed. Listen to the other guy too.

    May 1, 2010 08:48 pm at 8:48 pm |
  14. SNAPPA

    Conservative grass roots movement? Are you serious? If by that you mean FOX news or corporations funding bus trips for a bunch of bigots then OK. There is nothing grass roots about, its been revealed how these so called movements are funded and its by the pharmacutical companies medical corporations, insurance companies so CNN please the more you try to be like FOX news the more idiotic you make yourself to be.

    May 1, 2010 08:50 pm at 8:50 pm |
  15. Charlie in Maine

    Good for you sir. We've got your back.

    May 1, 2010 08:52 pm at 8:52 pm |
  16. spike in conshohocken pa

    OK, no more saying "socialism" to describe a high-tax, big-government approach to solving problems. Mr. Obama, please give us another word to use. Thank you.

    May 1, 2010 08:57 pm at 8:57 pm |
  17. Bedtime for Obonzo

    Sounds like the Beloved Leader is directly responding to Karl Rove's essay in Thurdays's Wall Street Journal. Look it up, read it, and make your own judgment.

    May 1, 2010 09:03 pm at 9:03 pm |
  18. Mike

    BHO is a complete fool...

    May 1, 2010 09:03 pm at 9:03 pm |
  19. Insanity!

    It only takes a vocal 1% to make the entire group seem like a bunch of idiots. The real problem is that the "nuts" scare those around them
    into thinking that the majority really believes the crap oozing from brainless heads like the Northern Idaho "College" attendee, Palin.
    Toning it down wll actually increase the value of the message. There
    are very important issues that cannot be heard because of the current lynch mob mentality of a very abrasive and vocal bunch of nut-cases.

    May 1, 2010 09:05 pm at 9:05 pm |
  20. Larry L

    Most of the folks throwing terms like "socialism" around heard the words on hate radio and haven't a clue what they mean. Our President continues to perform with dignity and statesmanship – in spite of the mindless rhetoric from the far-right.

    May 1, 2010 09:06 pm at 9:06 pm |
  21. Marie MD

    When you have haters like beck and the quitter and tub of lard inciting the masses to call President Obama a socialist or hitler backed by faux news what do you expect?
    The teabaggers is not a grass root campaign. It's the faux news astroturf!

    May 1, 2010 09:07 pm at 9:07 pm |
  22. The Truth, Please...I Just Want The Truth

    The name-calling needs to stop!

    "Socialist" has got to be one of the most misused words of our modern era. True socialism is when you don't have a private sector, and the government owns and controls ALL means of production. In other words, NOBODY owns their own business, and EVERYONE works for the government.

    Is this REALLY what our President wants...the COMPLETE elimation of the private sector, and the bringing of ALL means of production under government control?

    I mean...REALLY now?

    May 1, 2010 09:10 pm at 9:10 pm |
  23. Silvio

    Barry is getting nervous but he won't be getting half the crap that Palin and other will deservedly get.

    May 1, 2010 09:10 pm at 9:10 pm |
  24. Tony G.

    THAT'S our President and I couldn't be more proud. He's exactly right and makes every bit of sense. He's doing the best he can given the opposition he's up against and I hope he succeeds.

    May 1, 2010 09:12 pm at 9:12 pm |
  25. Mitz

    Lame. No one has suggested violence, that is a pure straw man argument.

    And let me get this straight, we have freedom of speech unless Obama deems that we are "crossing a line"? I don't think my rights end because he doesn't like what I"m saying, or the "discourse" is uncivil.

    He's just made because everyone in Michigan knows Granholm is a bum and Obama is a commie. Is that enough free speech, or did I "cross the line" and need to be censored?

    May 1, 2010 09:17 pm at 9:17 pm |
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