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2010-05-01

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Before graduates, Obama promotes his definition of citizenship

Sam Wolson/Daily
President Obama during his speech at 2010 Spring Commencement Saturday at Michigan Stadium. Buy this photo

By Jacob Smilovitz, Editor in Chief
and Kyle Swanson, Daily News Editor
Published May 1, 2010

President Barack Obama challenged the political status quo in a speech before more than 80,000 at the University of Michigan’s spring commencement Saturday, calling on graduates to embrace change as a means of strengthening the country’s democracy for years to come.

Sam Wolson/Daily
President Obama, University President Mary Sue Coleman and Governor Jennifer Granholm during the 2010 Spring Commencement ceremony held at Michigan Stadium on Saturday, May 1, 2010.

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Obama’s speech in Michigan Stadium was a clear denunciation of the current state of American politics — an environment he said is never a place for the “thin-skinned or faint-of-heart” but has recently been pushed further by the “incredibly difficult moment in which we find ourselves as a nation.”

Through his words, the president attempted to convey his notion of citizenship to the maturating generation before him. He tried at times to reshape current conceptions of small and big government, pushed for a more civil political discourse and implored graduates to participate in their government in the way they see most fit.

After severe thunderstorms drenched Ann Arbor this morning and threatened to undermine some of the excitement over the event, the rain slowed to a drizzle about an hour out from the ceremony’s start and came to a complete halt shortly before it was set to begin. The gray clouds overhead did linger though throughout most of the ceremony.

In attendance for Obama’s speech was a big crowd of University and state officials, including University President Mary Sue Coleman, Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm, University Provost Teresa Sullivan, University President Emeritus James Duderstadt, the University’s current Board of Regents and several former regents.

Those on stage and in the crowd alike roared when Obama was presented with his honorary degree and took to the podium to deliver his remarks.

As the president approached the microphone, one person in the crowd yelled out, “We love you,” to which Obama responded “I love you back.”

Beginning his speech, Obama described the current political atmosphere by highlighting a letter sent to him by a kindergarten class that included the question, “Are people being nice?”

“Well, if you turn on the news today, or yesterday, or a week ago, or a month ago —particularly one of the cable channels — you can see why even a kindergartener would ask this question,” Obama told the audience.

And while Obama pointed to name calling by politicians and pundits and a media that highlights “every hint of conflict,” he admitted that recent events have largely contributed to the charged political climate.

“The fact is, when you leave here today you will search for work in an economy that is still emerging from the worst crisis since the Great Depression,” Obama said. “You live in a century where the speed with which jobs and industries move across the globe is forcing America to compete like never before.”

However, Obama added that America has had a long history of partisan rancor.

“Since the days of our founding, American politics has never been a particularly nice business,” Obama said. “It’s always been a little less genteel during times of great change.”

Obama’s speech then turned from these challenges and the toxic political discourse of today, to what role graduates must play to improve the country’s democracy in the future.

“And now the question for your generation is this: how will you keep our democracy going?” Obama asked. “At a moment when our challenges seem so big and our politics seem so small, how will you keep our democracy alive and well in this century?”

While not wishing to offer “some grand theory or detailed policy prescription,” Obama did have three ingredients he said he believes are necessary for a functioning democracy: a limited, yet adaptive government, the maintaining of a “basic level of civility in our public debate” and civic participation.

On his first point, Obama conceded that there has, since the days of the Founding Fathers, been a belief in this country that government cannot solve every problem facing its people.