President Barack Obama took aim Saturday at the angry rhetoric of those who denigrate government as "inherently bad" and said their off-base line of attack ignores the fact that in a democracy, "government is us."
Obama used his commencement speech at the University of Michigan to respond to foes who portray government as oppressive and tyrannical. He also appealed for a more civil political debate and advised graduates to seek out and consider alternative views on the issues of the day, even if it makes their "blood boil."
Just 45 miles from the immense Michigan Stadium, capacity of 106,201, 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin held court in Clarkston, tearing into Obama's policies at a forum hosted by the anti-tax Americans for Prosperity Foundation.
The president told students and others in the audience — the school stopping giving out tickets once 80,000 were distributed — that debates about the size and role of government are as old as the republic itself.
"But it troubles me when I hear people say that all of government is inherently bad," said Obama, who received an honorary doctor of laws degree. "For when our government is spoken of as some menacing, threatening foreign entity, it conveniently ignores the fact in our democracy, government is us."
Obama didn't mention Palin in the speech, according to remarks the White House released in advance, nor was there any reference to the tea party movement. Palin, a potential Obama opponent in 2012, told activists that "big government" led by Obama's White House has become "intrusive" in Americans' lives.
In Obama's view, there are some things that only government can do.
Government, he said, is the roads we drive on and the speed limits that keep us safe. It's the men and women in the military, the inspectors in our mines, the pioneering researchers in public universities.
The financial meltdown dramatically showed the dangers of too little government, he said, "when a lack of accountability on Wall Street nearly led to the collapse of our entire economy."
Obama told both sides in the political debate to tone it down. "Phrases like 'socialist' and 'Soviet-style takeover,' 'fascist' and 'right-wing nut' may grab headlines," he said. But such language "closes the door to the possibility of compromise."
That kind of passion isn't new, he acknowledged. Politics in America, he said, "has never been for the thin-skinned or the faint of heart. ... If you enter the arena, you should expect to get roughed up."
Obama hoped the graduates hearing his words can avoid cynicism and brush off the overheated noise of politics. In fact, he said, they should seek out opposing views.
His advice: If you're a regular Glenn Beck listener, then check out the Huffington Post sometimes. If you read The New York Times editorial page the morning, then glance every now and then at The Wall Street Journal.
"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," he said.
The speech was part of a busy weekend for the president. He planned to attend the White House Correspondents' Association dinner Saturday evening near the White House and visit the Gulf Coast on Sunday morning for a firsthand update on the massive oil spill.
Obama's helicopter landed on a grass practice football field next to the stadium on a damp, overcast day. It was biggest crowd that the president had addressed since his inauguration.
The president's appearance in Michigan — a battleground in the 2008 White House race that's likely to play a big role in the fall congressional campaign — comes as the state struggles with the nation's highest unemployment rate, 14.1 percent. It's also has an unhappy electorate to match.
In the Republican's weekly radio and Internet address, Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich, said Obama's visit was a chance "to show the president, firsthand, the painful plight of the people of Michigan." Many of the graduates Obama addresses will soon learn how tough it is to find a job in this economy, Hoekstra said, adding that the share of young Americans out of work is the highest it's been in more than 50 years.
Speaking before Obama was Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who's known to be on his short list of possible Supreme Court nominees. She said Michigan residents owe him thanks for "delivering on health care reform" and "for supporting our auto industry. General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, they all have bright futures now, where a year ago, much darker clouds than these loomed overhead."
Obama's speech was the first of four he is giving this commencement season.
On May 9, he'll speak at Hampton University, a historically black college in Hampton, Va., founded in 1868 on the grounds of a former plantation.
He's also addressing Army cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., on May 22, continuing a tradition of presidents addressing graduates at the service academies. He announced his Afghanistan troop surge at West Post last December.
Also this year, for the first time, Obama plans a high school commencement. It's part of his "Race to the Top" education initiative, with its goal of boosting the United States' lagging graduation rate to the world's best by 2020.
High schools across the country have competed for the honor, submitting essays and videos. A vote on the White House website yielded three finalists, and Obama will choose among them next week.
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