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. Brian from SC

    I couldn't agree more with the president's speech in Michigan. "Civil" debate is not taught anymore in households. Do unto others as you would have done unto you- what happened to this common principle. I pray for greater civility and cooperation, not just in Washington, but in corporate America! The businessmen and women of America have a unique opportunity to influence lives for the better, through their daily business practices and ethics.

    Sometimes doing the right thing is not always popular, but it will reap huge benefits in the long run. Trust, honesty and respect are priceless.

    May 1, 2010 09:49 pm at 9:49 pm |
  2. Jim in NM

    Obama is a socialist and much worse. I am surprised he takes offense to the truth. Most sociopaths don't care what anybody thinks about them.

    May 1, 2010 09:51 pm at 9:51 pm |
  3. Anonymous

    Barack Obama is still the brilliant and very special President we elected. He has been unfairly challenged at every turn during his presidency, but fortunately, people are figuring out what a great leader we have.

    May 1, 2010 09:53 pm at 9:53 pm |
  4. Rob C

    He should tell Harry Reid his beliefs since Reid is the one that said Senators were un-American for using the filibuster.

    May 1, 2010 09:54 pm at 9:54 pm |
  5. Marley

    When I voted for Obama, I did not vote to change the greatest country in the world. His "Robin Hood" policies and and socialist attempts for equilibrium between the rich and the poor are driving me further and further away from his doctrine. I was a devout Republican who chance a vote on Obama. I had no idea what I was doing obviously. Obama's policy is probably more suited for Cuba or the old soviet block.

    May 1, 2010 09:54 pm at 9:54 pm |
  6. Positive

    He's exactly right and has exemplified it in his manner of dealing with people even when they do nothing but make up falsehoods and act as disrespectfully as they possibly can.

    The current lack of civility in debating issues is apalling. At an all time low for my lifetime. It's like some people have become addicted to hatefulness and mean-spiritedness. Snideness seems sometimes to have overtaken real, thoughtful discourse and in some crowds is cheered gleefully. Some people in public life now say anything, no matter how dishonest, without any shame at all, to try to win the debate.

    Also, as he mentioned, people do need to stay informed and challenge themselves with mulitiple sources of information–not just the ones that parrot what they want to hear.

    May 1, 2010 09:54 pm at 9:54 pm |
  7. Edward the 4th

    Socialism is not the American way. If it appeals to you, go to Europe. This man who is President of the United States is a socialist, and he wants you to be one too. Don't believe the hype.

    May 1, 2010 09:55 pm at 9:55 pm |
  8. Tik

    We need to remember and practice: The handshake is stronger than the fist.

    May 1, 2010 09:58 pm at 9:58 pm |
  9. Joseph

    As an independent American, I have witnessed how Obama has transformed this country into a semi-socialist country in a little more than one year. Under the "SOCIALIST" Obama's rule, it won't take long for ours to become an European-style socialist country. Big government, high tax and widespread welfares are awaiting for every taxpayer!

    May 1, 2010 10:03 pm at 10:03 pm |
  10. Ron

    Did I read that right? Did Obama say "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". Are you kidding me? That's ALL he has done over the last year and now that he sees his polls, and every Democrat in the country, he wants to now act civil? Too late – the tide has turned and he is going to get his clocked cleaned in November. You can fool all of the people some of the time-some of the people all of the time-but you can't fool all of the people all of the time. Obama is a useless individual and for a man who has NEVER HAD A REAL JOB IN HIS ENTIRE LIFE does not deserve to be running the biggest, and greatest, country in the world. Good riddance.........

    May 1, 2010 10:04 pm at 10:04 pm |
  11. senator

    I never thought I would say this but Obama is a socialist!!!! He is looting this country along with Geither and Bernake and Americans are waking up slowly and surely. Will will overcome!!!!!!!

    May 1, 2010 10:04 pm at 10:04 pm |
  12. Teaneck

    Let he who is without sin cast the first stone, Mr. O.

    May 1, 2010 10:05 pm at 10:05 pm |
  13. Tom

    If the Dalai Obama doesn't care for the moniker of "socialist", then he might consider reading Marx's The Communist Manifesto and then compare Marx's suggestions (on how to destroy a capitalist system) with his own policies and the laws that he has demanded and pushed. Other than minor word differences, the two are identical.

    May 1, 2010 10:07 pm at 10:07 pm |
  14. Bill

    OBAMA is nothing but a socialist. His manipulation of the government will result in a complete decimation of civilization as we know it. He never shouyld have been elected. He is performing miserably. He and his sycophantic admirers must be stopped if the USA as we once knew it will return. to its comfortable formation. I hope people in November vote Republican and evict these dangerous democrats.

    May 1, 2010 10:08 pm at 10:08 pm |
  15. Mike

    This clown talks about being civil but he and his attack dogs are not the least bit shy about viciously attacking any and all who do not agree with him. 2012 is the time to throw this bum back to Illinois.

    May 1, 2010 10:10 pm at 10:10 pm |
  16. Pkm

    A debate is great if who is debating can talk to each other and share the view points with out some one getting mad or lose your temper or hogs the debate

    May 1, 2010 10:16 pm at 10:16 pm |
  17. Bassman

    Hillary Clinton was right when she said "if its too hot in the kitchen Obama should get out." He does have a thin skin.

    May 1, 2010 10:16 pm at 10:16 pm |
  18. Samuel

    I attended the commencement this morning and greatly enjoyed the president's speech. It was a far cry for the typical "Go get 'em, grads! The world is yours!" graduation speech. He took the occasion to make his definitive statement on the role of government at a time when some of the most promising young people in the country are turning to cynicism or with-us-or-against-us partisanship. The president's speech was clearly political, but he made sure that he reminded everyone in attendance that living in a democracy makes politics everyone's responsibility.

    Go Blue!

    May 1, 2010 10:20 pm at 10:20 pm |
  19. Lee

    It's " vilification" if the rhetoric and vitriol is directed at a Democratic president, but loyal opposition when similar comments made against President Bush as Hitler personified. The :hope and change" president sure beats the other side hard, but refuses to acknowledge his own party's faults in the same breath. As an independent voter, I remember listening to a President that said he'd work to bring us all together – that's not what this administration has done. Failure in that regard to maintain his campaign's narrative directly relates to the backlash he's received. Too bad.

    May 1, 2010 10:21 pm at 10:21 pm |
  20. Ian

    Thank you Martina and CNN for yet another not-so-subtly biased opinion article. Just so we're clear, there is nothing grassroots about the ridiculous tea party movement and it has not risen to "prominence". It is spectacle and will soon be completely irrelevant.

    I saw this speach in person and it was fantastic and incredibly moving. There was no "clear reference" to the tea party movement–only the counter-productive and all-too-common punditry of today.

    Compare the 92,000-person crowd at UM to Sarah Palin's crowd of idiots 50 miles away. "Prominence", "grassroots".. please...

    May 1, 2010 10:22 pm at 10:22 pm |
  21. David Goren

    Perhaps President Obama should stop "throwing around" statements like "spread the wealth" and a more recent one about how there's a certain point when people have made enough money. If he does that, then perhaps the rest of us will stop our statements about his socialist agenda. Our words are simply in response to his words as well as his actions.

    May 1, 2010 10:31 pm at 10:31 pm |
  22. Jim Ricker

    In true Alinsky (communist) style, the man who has all his people (or doesn't disavow them) use these same tactics, call others names, make accusations of others that are true for the accusers really, complains and calls for respect. People see this guy for what he really is and that is why he has W numbers in approval polls.

    And to be accurate, Obama isn't a socialist – he is a Statist that morphs to whatever form of Statism that is needed.

    May 1, 2010 10:37 pm at 10:37 pm |
  23. Squigman

    Civil debate and republican debate, are two different debate tactics. If the republicans can not resort to name calling, and personal attacks on the opposing party, they tend to wander in their talking points. Take away their ability to create a platform of hate, and bigotry and they seem to be tongue tied.

    May 1, 2010 10:37 pm at 10:37 pm |
  24. Tom

    And that from the great demonizer.

    May 1, 2010 10:39 pm at 10:39 pm |
  25. Michael

    Right-wing extremists are hilarious – they actually don't realize how obsolete they are. Their goose was cooked when the Third Reich fell, they just don't know it yet.
    And their brainless FoxNews-viewing tool people screaming about socialism! Unless you belong to the uber-wealthy reling class, socialism is the only reason your kids even get to learn to read; the only reason anyone will even care to respond if your house catches on fire; the only reason you will get anything but a dial tone when you call 911. Socialism means someone in the govenment cares about you being able to afford medical attention. Socialism means you have rights even if you make less than five million dollars a year. You have roads to drive on thanks to socialism.
    Without socialism, there is only feudalism. Wake up: you can't all be lord of the manor – and more than likely you will be a serf and the parent of serfs, born to empty Lord Fat-Cat's chamber-pot and never question why.

    May 1, 2010 10:51 pm at 10:51 pm |
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