…and a few other things. Wow! President Obama gave the U of Michigan commencement address this year. And apparently, according to President Obama’s speech, President Kennedy had given the U of M commencement address 50 years ago. Just about halfway in between, the year I graduated from Michigan (1983), I wasn’t so lucky; I got to hear from Lee Iacocca–the chairman of Chrysler.
Besides “Go Blue” the President had a lot to say about the critical role of government in our society. (Why, we should hope that the government can “take over” more of our country when the private sector doesn’t seem to be doing so well — just think of the two companies most prominent in recent/current news: Goldman Sachs and BP.)
…what troubles me is when I hear people say that all of government is inherently bad. One of my favorite signs during the health care debate was somebody who said, “Keep Your Government Hands Out Of My Medicare” — (laughter) — which is essentially saying “Keep Government Out Of My Government-Run Health Care Plan.” (Laughter.)
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 — (applause.) We, the people, hold in our hands the power to choose our leaders and change our laws, and shape our own destiny.
Government is the police officers who are protecting our communities, and the servicemen and women who are defending us abroad. (Applause.) Government is the roads you drove in on and the speed limits that kept you safe. Government is what ensures that mines adhere to safety standards and that oil spills are cleaned up by the companies that caused them. (Applause.) Government is this extraordinary public university -– a place that’s doing lifesaving research, and catalyzing economic growth, and graduating students who will change the world around them in ways big and small. (Applause.)
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. We know that too much government can stifle competition and deprive us of choice and burden us with debt. But we’ve also clearly seen the dangers of too little government -– like when a lack of accountability on Wall Street nearly leads to the collapse of our entire economy. (Applause.)
So, class of 2010, what we 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 President Obama also described how extreme partisanship and even “demonization” crowds out compromise and any serious, thoughtful development of policies:
…we can’t expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down. (Applause.) You can disagree with a certain policy without demonizing the person who espouses it. You can question somebody’s views and their judgment without questioning their motives or their patriotism. (Applause.) Throwing around phrases like “socialists” and “Soviet-style takeover” and “fascist” and “right-wing nut” — (laughter) — that may grab headlines, but it also has the effect of comparing our government, our political opponents, to authoritarian, even murderous regimes.
Now, we’ve seen this kind of politics in the past. It’s been practiced by both fringes of the ideological spectrum, by the left and the right, since our nation’s birth. But it’s starting to creep into the center of our discourse. And the problem with it is not the hurt feelings or the bruised egos of the public officials who are criticized. Remember, they signed up for it. Michelle always reminds me of that. (Laughter.) 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 –- since, after all, why should we listen to a “fascist,” or a “socialist,” or a “right-wing nut,” or a left-wing nut”? (Laughter.)
It makes it nearly impossible for people who have legitimate but bridgeable differences to sit down at the same table and hash things out. It robs us of a rational and serious debate, the one we need to have about the very real and very big challenges facing this nation. 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’s advice on how to avoid “closing the doors” to compromise and what’s best for our country?:
[I]f we choose to actively seek out information that challenges our assumptions and our beliefs, perhaps we can begin to understand where the people who disagree with us are coming from.
Now, this requires us to agree on a certain set of facts to debate from. That’s why we need a vibrant and thriving news business that is separate from opinion makers and talking heads. (Applause.) That’s why we need an educated citizenry that values hard evidence and not just assertion. (Applause.) As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously once said, “Everybody is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” (Laughter.)
Still, if you’re somebody who only reads the editorial page of The New York Times, try glancing at the page of The Wall Street Journal once in a while. If you’re a fan of Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, try reading a few columns on the Huffington Post website. It may make your blood boil; your mind may not be changed. But the practice of listening to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship. (Applause.) It is essential for our democracy. (Applause.)
That’s some very good advice–not just for the U of M grads, but for all of us. Now pardon me while I tune into Rush…