Advice From President Obama: Participate and Persevere
President Obama gave the commencement address at the Ohio State University graduation ceremonies yesterday. The days leading up to the ceremony were full of trepidation for me personally. I was concerned about the lengthy lines at security checkpoints and all the other stuff that you have to go through when the President stops in. Ohio State University administration did a fabulous job of warning people in advance to expect long lines, and they did such a good job that even though it took the better part of an hour to get into the stadium, it didn't seem all that bad.
Barack Obama is a terrific speaker. His speech charted a masterful course down the center of the stadium. There was zero partisanship in any of the words that he said. It was very nice to know that one need not agree with the Pres. in order to really enjoy his speech. I did.
The theme of his speech fits exactly with what I have been saying in this space over the last couple of weeks. Specifically, that ours is a government of the people, and by the people and for the people and the people need to step up and become engaged. In short, he encouraged the graduates to participate in the governing process and persevere when things don't go the way they want them to.
... I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we can keep this idea of citizenship in its fullest sense alive at the national level — not just on Election Day, not just in times of tragedy, but all the days in between. And perhaps because I spend a lot of time in Washington, I’m obsessed with this issue because that sense of citizenship is so sorely needed there. And I think of what your generation’s traits — compassion and energy, and a sense of selflessness — might mean for a democracy that must adapt more quickly to keep up with the speed of technological and demographic, and wrenching economic change.
I think about how we might perpetuate this notion of citizenship in a way that another politician from my home state of Illinois, Adlai Stevenson, once described patriotism not as “short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.” That’s what patriotism is. That’s what citizenship is.
Slow and steady and consistent. That should describe our citizenship. But those words only establish what is the foundation of our citizenship.
It means knowing who’s been elected to make decisions on your behalf, and what they believe in, and whether or not they delivered on what they said they would. And if they don’t represent you the way you want, or conduct themselves the way you expect, if they put special interests above your own, you’ve got to let them know that’s not okay. And if they let you down often enough, there’s a built-in day in November where you can really let them know it’s not okay.
This is the keynote of a speech being delivered by a wonderful speaker to it very diverse audience. To the speaker, it matters not what the listeners' beliefs are. He just wants the citizens to make sure that their representatives are acting on those beliefs. A lot of us know what the issues are, but often we disagree on the ways of getting the job done. That is real democracy. The key is that idea of "getting things done." Currently Washington is not so much interested in getting things done. That has to change.
But participation, your civic duty, is more than just voting. You don’t have to run for office yourself — but I hope many of you do, at all levels, because our democracy needs you. And I promise you, it will give you a tough skin. I know a little bit about this. President Wilson once said, “If you want to make enemies, try to change something.”
And that’s precisely what the Founders left us — the power, each of us, to adapt to changing times. They left us the keys to a system of self-government, the tools to do big things and important things together that we could not possibly do alone — to stretch railroads and electricity and a highway system across a sprawling continent. To educate our people with a system of public schools and land-grant colleges, including The Ohio State University. To care for the sick and the vulnerable, and provide a basic level of protection from falling into abject poverty in the wealthiest nation on Earth. To conquer fascism and disease; to visit the Moon and Mars; to gradually secure our God-given rights for all of our citizens, regardless of who they are, or what they look like, or who they love.
The sad thing to me is that there are those out there who would read those words and find them to be the language of liberalism. I think it better to look at those words and to think of it as the language of humanism. Or even better still, the language of Americanism.
The founders trusted us with this awesome authority. We should trust ourselves with it, too. Because when we don’t, when we turn away and get discouraged and cynical, and abdicate that authority, we grant our silent consent to someone who will gladly claim it. That’s how we end up with lobbyists who set the agenda; and policies detached from what middle-class families face every day; the well-connected who publicly demand that Washington stay out of their business — and then whisper in government’s ear for special treatment that you don’t get.
That’s how a small minority of lawmakers get cover to defeat something the vast majority of their constituents want. That’s how our political system gets consumed by small things when we are a people called to do great things — like rebuild a middle class, and reverse the rise of inequality, and repair the deteriorating climate that threatens everything we plan to leave for our kids and our grandkids.
My thought at this point of the speech was kind of like, "what he said." In other words, this is exactly what I've been saying but I just don't have the right words or the eloquence to state it.
Fifty years ago, President Kennedy told the class of 1963 that “our problems are manmade — therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants.” We’re blessed to live in the greatest nation on Earth. But we can always be greater. We can always aspire to something more. That doesn’t depend on who you elect to office. It depends on you, as citizens, how big you want us to be, how badly you want to see these changes for the better.
And look at all that America has already accomplished. Look at how big we’ve been. I dare you, Class of 2013, to do better. I dare you to dream bigger.
And from what I’ve seen of your generation, I’m confident that you will. And so I wish you courage, and compassion, and all the strength that you will need for that tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.
Thank you. God bless you, and God bless these United States of America.
There are actually people out there who question this man's citizenship and love of country. Shake my head.
The problem is, like with all inspirational speeches at some point or another, this will devolve into just a memory, and the words of advice will just vanish into the ether. The graduates of 2013 will go on and live their lives just like the graduates of the class of 2012 before them and pretty much every year prior to that. And we will be stuck with the Washington of our own doing.
The text of the entire speech can be found here.
[blogger's note: lengthy post, no music clip]