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. Jerry

    The teleprompter said it so it must be so, Hope is not plan people

    May 1, 2010 09:18 pm at 9:18 pm |
  2. Potentate

    Ahhh. The thin skinned megalomaniac cockroach in chief strikes again.

    May 1, 2010 09:18 pm at 9:18 pm |
  3. Wendell C

    In other words, "Sit down, shut up and listen to me without complaining." Mr. President, you're full of stuff I usually flush.

    May 1, 2010 09:19 pm at 9:19 pm |
  4. Sgt. USMC

    I was reading a book that talked about the history behind the holocaust. It served to re-educate me on why it has been considered the most brutal, heartless and in-human act in the history of the world. One of the things that bothered me the most was how kids were being gassed for being kids. The elderly were killed for being weak. Millions died during that period in time, all for the psychotic mind of a man without a soul, hitler. I just couldn't help to wonder why they would compare that man to President Obama. What has he done that is so bad to compare him to such a person? With all of this hatred towards the President, it's no wonder so many love him for waking up everyday and doing so much for people who can't do for themselves. I know for a fact that he can go to sleep with a clear conscience. Not many of us can. Good job Mr. President, I am proud to call you my boss.

    May 1, 2010 09:21 pm at 9:21 pm |
  5. Larry

    A great man ... !!!

    Truly deserving the position the smart voters of this country have placed him in

    YES we can !!!!!!!

    May 1, 2010 09:21 pm at 9:21 pm |
  6. Walter-Charlotte

    Mr. Prez, if the shoe fits where it. That what you should have told those graduates. You should have a shirt with a big bold S for Socialist. When you tear down capitalism, America, corporations, profits, Americans, and use phrases like spread the wealth, "at some point you've made enough money", etc... you are a Socialist. For 20 years you soaked up Rev. Wright's hatred for this country yet you claim you didn't listen. You disgrace America every chance you get overseas and here to repeat that same hatred for what America stands for. Health Care was first on his agenda, if he is allowed to get his radical agenda through, we will soon be ordered to hang giant Obama pictures in our houses, schools, public buildings and worship our leader of the United Socialist States of America.

    May 1, 2010 09:25 pm at 9:25 pm |
  7. Gerry

    Nothing more needs to be said than General Motors, a socialist car company.

    May 1, 2010 09:25 pm at 9:25 pm |
  8. Johnny Five

    "But it also has the effect of comparing our government – our political opponents – to authoritarian and even murderous regimes.”

    And how is that NOT true?

    May 1, 2010 09:25 pm at 9:25 pm |

    Is this man playing with a full deck or not.?Have any of you not noticed that his talks are not rational. He rambles and jumps from one subject to another without really saying anything. He has not accomplished anything then he claims he wants a bi-partisian congress but yet tosses insults towards his conservative counterparts and gives them no chance to imput any of their ideals. I was a Democrat but COLOR me gone. 50 years of ignorance is enough for any man., This man is not only capable of running the higgest office in the land but he is crazier than hades.

    May 1, 2010 09:27 pm at 9:27 pm |
  10. Carmen

    Compromise? What is he doing about immigration? I say we get rid of the government. No se sirve.

    May 1, 2010 09:30 pm at 9:30 pm |
  11. Di

    Wish President Obama would stand up for himself more often and that the people can see the nastiness of the Tea party,some republicans and a ex so called governer who are downright scary. We as humans are better than that and I hope these lowlifes will be seen for what they are and not encouraged.You gp Obama...This is coming from a Canadian who is disappointed in how petty this has become. Thank you

    May 1, 2010 09:31 pm at 9:31 pm |
  12. Fatai Ajao

    Good job Mr. President! I hope people will listen to your candid advice though!

    May 1, 2010 09:32 pm at 9:32 pm |
  13. Dean in PA

    It's about time!! Thank you, Mr. President, for finally standing up to the people who have been bashing you for so long! Do not let up... do not back down. You are being targeted by bigoted, self-serving, hypocritical, holier-than-thou enemies who will lie, cheat, and manipulate the truth in any way that they can to bring you down. Please don't let them. Stand tough against them.

    May 1, 2010 09:34 pm at 9:34 pm |
  14. Anonymous

    These statements by the President would have had much more credibility if he had made them, and lived them, BEFORE he became the King of Demonization.

    May 1, 2010 09:36 pm at 9:36 pm |
  15. KLS

    Words of wisdom to the graduates.

    May 1, 2010 09:37 pm at 9:37 pm |
  16. DWells

    Wow! Where was Obama when people on the left were vilifying President Bush? The verbal attacks were vicious and nobody came to his defense. I think it's about time that Obama quits blaming everybody for the situation this country is in. I have NEVER heard any president blame the previous administration the way Obama blames President Bush. Man up Mr. Obama. You knew the situation this country was in and still vigorously campaigned for the job. Now you have it STOP complaining.

    And by the way, a commencement address isn't the place for another campaign speech.

    May 1, 2010 09:38 pm at 9:38 pm |
  17. Jimmy R

    A demoncratic government isn't something to fight against. It's a government that should be embraced and nurtured. It's a government that has built in mechanisms for change by those who are governed. The debacles of the last decade are proof of what can happen when government fails in its responsibilities. Now there are those who are saying government is doing too much; although all government is doing now is trying to clean up the messes which came about during the previous administration. I agree with the president. Let us use those rights afforded us by government in a civil and sane manner, and avoid creating animosity that will seriously hamper progress for us all.

    May 1, 2010 09:41 pm at 9:41 pm |
  18. bennie new york

    No government should ever be completely trusted, but you need good readon to distrust it completely. Suspicion is good but fear is bad.

    May 1, 2010 09:44 pm at 9:44 pm |
  19. Alan

    I am sorry Mr. President but you have lost credibility with the American people. You sure didn't have a problem with the protestors that protested Bush and called him everything in the book. Where was your outrage when that idiot in Iraq threw his shoe at Bush? Where is your outrage at the protestors in Arizona?

    It is clear that you want the Tea Partiers shut down because they are making the public more aware of your policies which is resulting in diving poll numbers for you and your party.

    May 1, 2010 09:45 pm at 9:45 pm |
  20. RN

    I watched this speech and I think it was a great speech to draw us all together, to remind us that we are all Americans. He acknowledged that name calling happened on both sides and it needed to change.
    Obama is constantly trying to raise the level of debate, and to include all who will take an active part in the work that needs to be done.
    It is easy to sit on the sidelines and criticize the people doing the work. There are more risks and it is much harder to do the work.

    May 1, 2010 09:45 pm at 9:45 pm |
  21. The Old Wolf

    The wicked take the truth to be hard.

    May 1, 2010 09:46 pm at 9:46 pm |
  22. Southerner

    A rose by any other name...

    He IS a socialist. I wonder why the label bothers him?

    May 1, 2010 09:46 pm at 9:46 pm |
  23. Hammerer

    Obama calls for civil debate in one breath and slamming all that oppose his ideas. And ridiculing everyone that speaks out in opposition.
    How can he call out a person or group, such as the Tea Party or Repubs, when his entire campaign and every speach since he took office has been an attack on a person (Bush), a group (Fat Cats of Wall Street), (Tea Party), (Party of No). His Dem leaders throwing out derogatory names about the opposition is amoung the worst.
    Now that the insults are comming back toward Obama they have no place in politics. Guess he can not stand the heat.
    If he really wants to clean up the debate he should lead the way by example. But first that requires leadership skills.

    May 1, 2010 09:48 pm at 9:48 pm |
  24. Rocky

    We DO need to be asking whether we want big government or small government, because therein lies the burden of govt on the backs of the governed. We need to asking to do we want the Constitution to be our foundational document or have Congress, "make it up as we go along". This all seems somewhat hypocritical, while calling for civility he mocks, and denigrates his opposition. His has been the a divisive administration, and in these horribly frightening and hard times, we need leadership to restore our faith in ourselves and our government. I believe he's gotten it all wrong. Who can believe what he says anymore?

    May 1, 2010 09:48 pm at 9:48 pm |
  25. He's a socialist!

    Why is he defending the charge? He's needs to grow a pair and just take ownership of what he is.

    hey obama, you suck. you have cnn and msnbc protecting you every chance you get and you still suck as a president!

    fortunately for you, cnn won't actually cover you in the news – unless it's their positive spin, of course.

    May 1, 2010 09:48 pm at 9:48 pm |
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