Home National Politics Another Day, Another Superb Commencement Address by President Obama

Another Day, Another Superb Commencement Address by President Obama

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I’m not sure how it’s possible, but President Obama just keeps getting better and better all the time — it’s truly amazing (I just wish he could run for a third term). Check out Obama’s commencement address a little while ago to the Rutgers University Class of 2016. There’s so much great stuff in this speech, it’s hard to know where to start, but here are some highlights (bolding added by me for emphasis), followed by video. Enjoy!

1. Making progress is not “smooth or steady” or “in a straight line,” it’s difficult and contentious and “sometimes bloody.” Sometimes it feels like “for every two steps forward it feels like we take one step back.”
2. The arc of our nation and the world does not bend towards freedom, justice or equality on its own — “it depends on us, on the choices we make, particularly at certain inflection points in history…”
3. “Class of 2016, you are graduating at such an inflection point…horrific terrorist attacks and war and the Great Recession…economic and technological and cultural shifts that are profoundly altering how we work and how we communicate…The pace of change is not subsiding, it is accelerating; and these changes offer not only great opportunity but also great peril.
4. We need to make the right choices to move away from “fear and division and paralysis and towards cooperation and innovation and hope.”
5. Obama mocked the concept (hinting clearly at Donald Trump’s ridiculous “Make America Great Again” crap), of “look[ing] backward and long for some imaginary past when everything worked and the economy hummed and all politicians were wise and every child was well mannered and America pretty much did whatever it wanted around the world.” According to Obama, “It ain’t so…The good old days weren’t all that good.” In fact, today, “by almost every measure, America is better and the world is better than it was 50 years ago or 30 years ago or even eight years ago” (e.g., in the 1950s, “women and people of color were systematically excluded from big chunks of American life”).
6. “The world is more interconnected than ever before,” and (another shot at Trump), “building walls won’t change that.” In fact, the “biggest challenges we face can’t be solved in isolation.”
7. Obama made a strong case, given the interconnected world economy, for trade deals that press other countries to raise their environmental, labor and human rights standards.
8. Another shot at Trump: “Isolating and disparaging Muslims, suggesting that they should be treated differently…that is not just a betrayal of our values…a betrayal of who we are, it would alienate the very communities at home and abroad who are our most important partners in the fight against violent extremism.”
9. Yet another well-deserved shot at Trump: “Suggesting that we can build an endless wall along our borders and blame our challenges on immigrants, that doesn’t just run counter to our history as the world’s melting pot, it contradicts the evidence that our growth and our innovation and our dynamism has always been spurred by our ability to attract strivers from every corner of the globe; that’s how we became America, why would we want to stop it now???
10. A well-earned shot at the entire Republican Party these days: “Facts, evidence, reason, logic, an understanding of science, these are good things, these are qualities you want in people making policy…” Where has “this strain of anti-intellectualism” come from? “In politics and in life, ignorance is NOT a virtue; it’s not cool to not know what you’re talking about…that’s not challenging ‘political correctness,’ that’s just not knowing what you’re talking about.”
11. Today, we have tremendous access to information, but ironically that hasn’t necessarily made us “more discerning of the truth,” but in some ways has simply “made us more confident in our ignorance.” “We assume whatever’s on the web must be true…opinions masquerade as facts, the wildest conspiracy theories are taken for gospel.” “When our leaders express a disdain for facts, when they’re not held accountable for repeating falsehoods and just making stuff up, while actual experts are dismissed as ‘elitists,’ then we’ve got a problem.” If we get sick, we want the doctor to have gone to medical school; if we get on a plane, we want the pilot to actually be able to fly the plan; but in our public life we don’t want someone who knows what they’re doing?
12. “The rejection of facts, the rejection of reason and science, that is the path to decline.” The “debate around climate change is a perfect example of this.”
13. Obama mocked climate science denier Sen. James Inhofe for bringing a snowball onto the Senate floor during the winter as “proof” that there’s no global warming. To the contrary, “climate change is not something subject to political spin, there is evidence, there are facts, we can see it happening right now…Imagine if Benjamin Franklin had seen that Senator with the snowball…Imagine if you’re 5th-grade science teacher had seen that — he’d get a “D”; and he’s a Senator!”
14. A critique of Donald Trump AND Bernie Sanders? “Have faith in Democracy; I know it’s not always pretty…but it’s how, bit by bit, generation by generation, we have made progress in this nation…None of these changes happened overnight; they didn’t happen because some charismatic leader got everybody suddenly to agree on everything; it didn’t happen because some massive political revolution occurred. It actually happened over the course of years of advocacy and organizing and alliance building and deal making and the changing of public opinion…because ordinary Americans who cared participated in the political process.
15. “If you want to change this country for the better, you’d better start participating.” When people don’t vote, as happened in 2014, “apathy has consequences.”
16. Another critique of Sanders? “The system isn’t as rigged as you think, and it certainly is not as hopeless as you think…If you vote and you elect a majority that represents your views, you will get what you want; if you opt out or stop paying attention you won’t…It’s not that complicated.” And no, there’s no excuse for cynicism or expecting things to change overnight — it can take decades of hard work and also compromise; “that’s how democracy works.” “You have to be a citizen full time all the time.”
17. Democracy also means listening to people you don’t agree with. Obama criticized Rutgers students for trying a couple years ago to block and/or shut out former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. “I believe that’s misguided; I don’t think that’s how democracy works best, when we’re not even willing to listen to each other…If you disagree with somebody, bring them in and ask them tough questions...make them defend their positions…engage it, debate it, stand up for what you believe in, don’t be scared to take somebody on, don’t feel like you have to shut your ears off because you’re too fragile and somebody might offend your sensibilities, go at ’em if they’re not making any sense.
18. You have to be persistent…”I always tell my daughters, ‘better is good’…that’s how progress happens…Certainly don’t let resistance make you cynical…cynics don’t accomplish much…as a guy named Bruce Springsteen once sang, ‘they spend their lives waiting for a moment that just don’t come…don’t waste your time waiting.”

  • RollinsJK

    What a divisive idiot — using a commencement address to demonize a Presidential candidate. This loser will go down as the worst ever.

    • Brilliant, well-reasoned speech by one of our nation’s greatest presidents; Trump supporters have no counterargument so they immediately go ad hominem. Very revealing about the Trump supporters, and not in any good way.

  • GBrandon

    What have these fresh university graduates lived with the past sixteen years, just about all of their formative years? Bush II? Not good. Obama-McConnell? Again, not good. (Sorry, but the two of them will be inexorably linked in history.) No student debt relief in sight. Weekly evidence of global climate change with few indications of breakthroughs. An unending so-called war on terrorism. Stagnant wages. A complicated health care system that is not all its cracked up to be. Worse of all, a leadership that appears to have a serious lack of imagination. Wasn’t Hoover an incrementalist?

    • “Obama-McConnell?” Why would you pair those two guys? The fact is, Obama tried (and succeeded in many cases) to make things better for our country, while McConnell worked to make Obama and the country “fail.” So…basically 100% of the blame to McConnell and his merry band of Republican nihillsts for the problems we still have. As for climate change, there actually has been significant progress — e.g., a clean energy revolution in part jumpstarted by the Dems’ economic recovery act, which not a single Republican voted for, and other actions taken by this administration – although clearly not enough, again thanks to McConnell et al. Wages, the health care system, etc. definitely need improvement, but again, how would we get this through McConnell, Boehner/Ryan, etc? That would take a lot more than “imagination”…because this isn’t about “imagination,” it’s about power politics, plain and simple.

      • Oliver Willis says it better than I can on Twitter:

        “the resentment vs obama is “logical” if you view the world like many of them do. X is popular. So why didn’t Obama do X?

        reality is most of us who’ve followed this knew that when ACA passed it was like OMG WE GOT MOST OF IT THROUGH! vs disappointment

        i was only a kid at the time but i remember how the clintons got dunked on when they tried to pass health care. was huge news.

        ive interacted w some of these guys and they act like health care was something obama thought of in jan 09 vs a 20-30 yr fight

        god knows i wish the real world worked like if something is popular congress would feel compelled to act on it. but thats not how it works

        if our system was like a european parliament that mindset would make more sense. but its not. its us civics 101.

        per that last RT i’ve seen exactly that said. like obama just decided in 2009 “eff single payer.” again i wanna scream: “CONGRESS”

        and i dont know how to drill reality into their heads. it doesnt work that way. its not something you can just protest and it happens.

        theres no magic in the real world. there’s no spell. it takes years and years to get this stuff done.

        these goals are worthy but theyre not happening over night. america is not like that culturally or legislatively.

        didnt they see what happened after sandy hook? we had tiny little children w their brains blown out, popular support for reform. nada.

        right but then you have the left so focused on the white house and they cant bother to work on congress

        there has never been majority support for single payer in congress. it has never happened. maybe one day.

        see what im saying? no wonder they get upset at obama like that. in their eyes he just decided to stop single payer. its insane.

        maybe you missed 2010 and 2014 then? the left sucks at midterms.

        nothing wrong w wanting them. i want them. but dont act like obama or whoever failed because they didnt do it.

        • GBrandon

          Obviously Obama and McConnell are linked because of their mutual opposition and not by ideology. But to understand the Bernie phenomena, one should try to empathize with young people.

          I’m not sure how the President’s speech was inspiring when he was basically telling graduates not to think/dream big. To repeat, these young people have lived with stasis for most if not all of their formative years. Of course, I blame the Republicans for this. However, it is still stasis. Executive orders are great but short term fixes.

          I’m not all that into hagiography. Nor am I into kicking the can down the road.