Ann Arbor, Barack Obama, Michigan, President Obama — May 2, 2010 at 12:01 am

“Doctor” Obama speaks to grads and the country


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For those attending the 2010 Spring Commencement ceremony at the University of Michigan, the day started around 4 a.m. We arrived at the U of M football stadium, “The Big House” (capacity: 108,000), at 6 a.m. to pick up our press credentials. The rain started shortly thereafter and we spent the next three hours standing in the pouring rain with lightning flashing over our heads, tweeting and Facebooking and photographing.

The threatening weather was an apt metaphor for the economic and political climate facing our state and facing these graduating young people as they move to the next phase in their lives. Indeed, as the day progressed, Saturday’s weather throughout the event proved to be a perfect metaphor in general.

Michigan's Commencement

Many, many more photos, a slideshow and an interactive panoramic image after the jump.

All photos by Anne C. Savage except the crappy iPhone ones taken by me (as indicated).

The lines were long to get in. Security was tight, something I think all of us were thankful for even as it inconvenienced us.

Volunteers, including many from Organizing for America, helped people to find their way into the stadium in the dim, dreary morning.

An OFA volunteer [photo by Eclectablog]

Volunteers assist people in the morning hours [photo by Eclectablog]

Commencement attendees were instructed to be there by 9 a.m. and as that time approached, lines grew long. But, as so many people I’ve talked to have said, it was a happy, joyful crowd — happy to be there supporting the graduates and to hear the president’s message to them and the country.

Michigan's Commencement
Lining up to enter the Big House

Once inside, everyone passed through security.

Security line with metal detectors [photo by Eclectablog]

But getting through security was only half the battle. Once inside, the lines were long to get inside the stadium bowl itself.

Line to get into the stadium [photo by Eclectablog]

These two shots show the Big House at about 8:00 a.m. and then about 10:00 a.m.

The Big House at 8:00 a.m. [photo by Eclectablog]

The Big House at 10:00 a.m. [photo by Eclectablog]

The image below is an interactive panoramic image taken inside the Big House just before the ceremony began. Click “FULLSCREEN” to have the image fill your computer screen. Use your mouse to rotate the image around you.

Even inside, security was amazingly tight. Stern, serious-looking men with wires running into their ears were everywhere. Wandering around absorbing the moment, I was stopped no less than three times and asked for my credentials.

Very SeriousTM Secret Service agents [photo by Eclectablog]

As the 11:00 a.m. start time approached, we were entertained by bands like Groove Spoon and by cameras panning the excited graduates, displayed on large video screens around the stadium.

If you want to see what diversity looks like, a trip to the campus of University of Michigan is the quickest way I can think of to do so. Students from all over the world come to Ann Arbor to study. The vibrant colors of the many different mortar board tassels and the flags of the various colleges onstage were no match for the attire of many of the graduates. Africans. Asians. Europeans. People of all shapes, sizes, colors and cultures were represented among these graduates. The common element, besides the black robes, was a broad smile and sense of excitement, relief and happiness.

Michigan's Commencement

Before President Obama’s Commencement Address, we heard from a number of different folks. Student Samir Mohammed Islam gave the “Reflection”. He spoke of students arriving at U of M “oozing with self-confidence”. But he leaves having experienced a quite different reality:

My four years at Michigan were not an experience in dominance. Rather, they were a lesson in humility. We have each faced different challenges at college, whether it was difficult classes, critical life decisions or personal loss. Because of our experiences, we stand here today as more resilient individuals. As we move on from Michigan, each of us is more prepared to realize our potential and more prepared to be the individuals that we were meant to be.

Terrence J. McDonald, Dean of the College of Literature, Science and the Arts, spoke about President Obama’s message of hope in the context of history and the future of the graduates he was speaking to. “History,” he said, “helps us to understand the power of hope.”

The president has put out a ‘Help Wanted’ ad. “Wanted: The next Great Generation. Hope required.”

Senior Alex Marston then spoke in his “Remarks on Behalf of the Students”. Alex’s dream job is to be a political speech writer and this was a big day for him. As wrote, he “briefly stole the show” at Commencement 2010.

We desire change, but we fear it. President Obama ran on a motto of ‘change we can believe in’ but when he became president, he met many resistances to change…

As a nation, we have found that changes can bring us together. But they can also tear us apart. Today we must reexamine our views toward change. We must embrace change and realize that with every change comes new opportunity.

U of M president Mary Sue Coleman presented the students to President Obama. She noted that U of M is the number one contributor to Teach for America and that 4 out of 5 graduates have done community service with more than 35,000 hours of community service served in the past year alone.

She spoke directly to the students and to President Obama about the support he received from U of M students in the 2008 presidential election.

18 months ago, many of you voted in your first presidential election. [HUGE APPLAUSE!] And you worked hard for your candidates. We expect nothing less from a campus that gave birth to both the College Republicans and the Students for a Democratic Society. Mr. President, you should know that on election night, thousands of students flooded the campus to celebrate your election. [HUGE APPLAUSE!] It was a spontaneous outpouring unlike anything we have seen in Ann Arbor in a long time.

Graduates, remember that emotion. Remember that joy of running through the streets. Remember being part of something bigger than yourself. That is the feeling of making a difference. Take it with you, share it freely, and transform the world with your ideas and actions and your service to others.

Michigan's Commencement
Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, President Obama, and University President Mary Sue Coleman

After President Coleman, Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm spoke. Referring to the students, she asked, “Mr. President, aren’t they magnificent?” Then she gave thanks to the president.

Some quick thanks are in order:
On behalf of our 10 million citizens, Mr. President, thank you for supporting our auto industry…

Thank you, Mr. President, for supporting our green economy…we could not transform Michigan from the Rust Belt to the Green Belt without your support…And while I’m at it, thank you for fighting for the Green Energy Jobs bill that is to come.

Thank you, Mr. President, for delivering on health care reform! [HUGE APPLAUSE!]

Thank you, Mr. President, for delivering for these young people, increased access to college by expanding the Pell Grant and expanding our student loan system.

Thank you, Mr. President, for delivering on the Recovery Act and on behalf of the 90 thousand people who are working directly or indirectly as a result of that Act Michigan. Thank you because those jobs are here.

After Governor Granholm completed her remarks, President Coleman conferred the Honorary Degree of “Doctor of Laws” on President Obama, after which he spoke.

Michigan's Commencement

The full text of his speech (which he deviated from a bit) along with video is available HERE. But there were some specific bits that I think are worth mentioning.

His speech talked about Democracy and our role in that Democracy. President Obama spoke of three specific elements.

Michigan's Commencement

Michigan's Commencement

First, he spoke of our perception of the role of government as he addressed the graduating students:

[T]he question for your generation is this: how will you keep our democracy going? At a moment when our challenges seem so big and our politics seem so small, how will you keep our democracy alive and vibrant? How will you keep it well in this century?

I’m not here to offer some grand theory or detailed policy prescription. But let me offer a few brief reflections based on my own experiences and the experiences of our country over the last two centuries.

First, American democracy has thrived because we have recognized the need for a government that, while limited, can still help us adapt to a changing world…

It was the first Republican President who said that the role of government is to do for the people what they cannot do better for themselves. He would go on to begin that first intercontinental railroad and set up the first land-grant colleges. It was another Republican, Teddy Roosevelt, who said that “the object of government is the welfare of the people.” He is remembered for using the power of government to break up monopolies, and establishing our National Park system. Democrat Lyndon Johnson announced the Great Society during a commencement here at Michigan, but it was the Republican president before him, Dwight Eisenhower, who launched the massive government undertaking known as the Interstate Highway System.

Of course, there have always been those who’ve opposed such efforts. They argue that government intervention is usually inefficient; that it restricts individual freedom and dampens individual initiative. And in certain instances, that’s been true. For many years, we had a welfare system that too often discouraged people from taking responsibility for their own upward mobility. At times, we’ve neglected the role that parents, rather than government, can play in cultivating a child’s education. Sometimes regulation fails, and sometimes its benefits do not justify its costs.

But what troubles me is when I hear people say that all of government is inherently bad. One of my favorite signs from the health care debate was one that read “Keep Government Out Of My Medicare,” which is essentially like saying “Keep Government Out Of My Government-Run Health Care.” For when our government is spoken of as some menacing, threatening foreign entity, it ignores the fact in our democracy, government is us. We, the people, hold in our hands the power to choose our leaders, change our laws, and shape our own destiny.

Government is the police officers who are here protecting our communities and the service men and women who are defending us abroad. 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. Government is this extraordinary public university – a place that is doing life-saving research, and catalyzing economic growth, and graduating students who will change the world around them in ways big and small.

The truth is, the debate we’ve had for decades between more government and less government doesn’t really fit the times in which we live. We know that too much government can stifle competition, deprive us of choice, and burden us with debt. But we’ve also seen clearly the dangers of too little government – like when a lack of accountability on Wall Street nearly led to the collapse of our entire economy.

So what we should be asking is not whether we need a “big government” or a “small government,” but how we can create a smarter, better government. Because in an era of iPods and Tivo, where we have more choices than ever before (even though I really can’t work a lot of these things — but I have 23-year olds who do it for me!) — government shouldn’t try to dictate your lives. But it should give you the tools you need to succeed. Our government shouldn’t try to guarantee results, but it should guarantee a shot at opportunity for every American who’s willing to work hard.

The point is, we can and should debate the role of government in our lives, but remember, as you are asked to meet the challenges of our time, that the ability for us to adapt our government to the needs of the age has helped make our democracy work since its inception.

Michigan's Commencement

Second, the president talked of civility and its important role in a healthy democracy.

The second way to keep our democracy healthy is to maintain a basic level of civility in our public debate. These arguments we’re having over government and health care and war and taxes are serious arguments. They should arouse people’s passions, and it’s important for everyone to join in the debate, with all the rigor that a free people require.

But we cannot expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down. 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. Throwing around phrases like “socialist” and “Soviet-style takeover;” “fascist” and “right-wing nut” may grab headlines, but it also has the effect of comparing our government, or our political opponents, to authoritarian, and even murderous regimes.

Again, we have 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.

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.

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 “socialist” or “a right-wing nut or a left-wing nut?” 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 — 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.

So what we do?

As I’ve found out after a year in the White House, changing this type of slash and burn politics isn’t easy. And part of what civility requires is that we recall the simple lesson most of us learned from our parents: treat others as you would like to be treated, with courtesy and respect.

But civility in this age also requires something more than just asking “can’t we just all get along?”

…if we choose only to expose ourselves to opinions and viewpoints that are in line with our own, studies suggest that we will become more polarized and set in our ways. And that will only reinforce and even deepen the political divides in this country. But if 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 of us that we all agree on a certain set of facts to debate from, and that is why we need a vibrant and thriving news business that is separate from opinion makers and talking heads. That’s why we need an educated citizenry that values hard evidence and not just assertion. As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously once said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

Still, if you’re someone who only reads the editorial page of the New York Times, try glancing at the page of The Wall Street Journal once in awhile. 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 often be changed. But the practice of listening to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship. It is essential for our democracy.

And so too is the practice of engaging in different kinds of experiences with different kinds of people. I look out at this class and I realize that for four years at Michigan, you have been exposed to diverse thinkers and scholars; professors and students. Don’t narrow that broad intellectual exposure just because you’re leaving here. Instead, seek to expand it. If you grew up in a big city, spend some time with some who grew up in a rural town. If you find yourself only hanging around with people of your race or your ethnicity or your religion, broaden your circle to include people who’ve had different backgrounds and life experiences. You’ll learn what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes, and in the process, you’ll help make this democracy work.

Michigan's Commencement

And, finally, the third element of a healthy democracy the president talked about was participation.

[W]hen we don’t pay close attention to the decisions made by our leaders; when we fail to educate ourselves about the major issues of the day; when we choose not to make our voices and opinions heard, that’s when democracy breaks down. That’s when power is abused. That’s when the most extreme voices in our society fill the void that we leave. That’s when powerful interests and their lobbyists are most able to buy access and influence in the corridors of Washington – because none of us are there to speak up and stop them.

Participation in public life doesn’t mean that you all have to run for public office – though we could certainly use some fresh faces in Washington. But it does mean that you should pay attention and contribute in any way that you can. Stay informed. Write letters, or make phone calls on behalf of an issue you care about. If electoral politics isn’t your thing, continue the tradition so many of you started here at Michigan and find a way to serve your community and your country – an act that will help you stay connected to your fellow citizens and improve the lives of those around you.

Michigan's Commencement

He finished his address with this:

It was fifty years ago that a young candidate for president came here to Michigan and delivered a speech that inspired one of the most successful service projects in American history. And as John F. Kennedy described the ideals behind what would become the Peace Corps, he issued a challenge to the students who had assembled in Ann Arbor on that October night:

“…[O]n your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country…will depend the answer whether a free society can compete. I think it can.”

This democracy we have is a precious thing. For all the arguments and all the doubts and all the cynicism that’s out there today, we should never forget that as Americans, we enjoy more freedoms and opportunities than citizens in any other nation on Earth. We are free to speak our mind and worship as we please; to choose our leaders and criticize them if they let us down. We have the chance to get an education, work hard, and give our children a better life.

None of this came easy. None of it was preordained. The men and women who sat in your chairs ten years ago and fifty years ago and one hundred years ago – they made America possible. And there is no guarantee that the graduates who will sit here in ten or fifty or one hundred years from now will enjoy the same freedoms and opportunities that we do. America’s success has never been a given. Our nation’s destiny has never been certain.

What is certain – what has always been certain – is our ability to shape that destiny. That is what makes us different. That is what makes us American – our ability at the end of the day to look past all of our differences and all of our disagreements and still forge a common future. That task is now in your hands, as is the answer to the question posed at this university half a century ago about whether a free society can still compete.

If you are as willing, as past generations were willing, to contribute part of your life to the life of this country, then I, like President Kennedy, still believe we can.

Before the Commencement ceremony ended, President Obama had one more task — the Commissioning of Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC). These lucky men and women were commissioned by the Commander in Chief himself, a rare and wonderful chance.

Surprisingly (to me), we only saw one mortar board with the iconic Obama logo on it.

Michigan's Commencement
The cap of Anton Bullock

This was the cap of Anton Bullock of Detroit. Although he was too busy with school during the 2008 election, he told me that Barack Obama is the first president he ever paid attention to. “I’ve listened to all his speeches,” he said.

After the ceremony was over, the president made his departure. We watched as the three helicopters of Marine One lifted off and flew to Detroit Metro Airport so that President Obama could be whisked by Air Force One back to Washington, D.C. to attend the White House Correspondents Dinner. The weather that had started out dismal, rainy and threatening had slowly improved throughout the morning. During the president’s speech, the sun began to show through just a bit. And as he flew off from Ann Arbor, the wash from the helicopters’ whirring blades seemed to blow away the last of the clouds. The sun came out and the graduates, their friends and families, and the many thousands of people that came to hear our president speak, all streamed out of the stadium into a glorious, sunny day.

Perhaps the weather for the University of Michigan’s Spring Commencement is a metaphor for our state and our country right now. Although we’ve been through some very difficult times, we have as a leader someone who puts the American values of democracy and civility and prosperity above all else. While so many of us engage in divisive rhetoric, President Obama is a calming, quieting voice, clearing away the negativity and offering us something better, something more civil and rational, something more American.

This was not the speech I thought he would give. I thought the president would speak of jobs, of the economy, of having hope and faith of a better future. Instead, he focused on the present — on the NOW. He talked to us about how we can be part of making the country a better place and strengthening the democracy that is the foundation for our prosperity. He spoke to all of us. To his supporters. To his detractors. And to those who are in the middle. He has pointed down a path that will lead us to a better place as Americans.

It was not the speech I thought he would give. It was so, so much better.

I’m just sayin’…

Flickr slideshow with 48 images:

Larger version of the slideshow HERE. See the Flickr set containing all photos HERE.

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