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Obama's 'spirited defense of government'

By Ed O'Keefe

Amid a busy news weekend -- President Obama's trip to the Gulf Coast, his joke-filled address to the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner and the Times Square bomb scare -- let's pause and review the speech Obama delivered on Saturday at the University of Michigan.

The president "delivered a spirited defense of government..and issued a call for civility in a direct rebuttal to Republicans and 'tea party' activists who have attacked his politics and priorities," wrote The Post's Peter Slevin.

Obama said the speech was prompted by a Kindergartner's letter that asked, “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 kindergartner would ask this question," Obama said. "We’ve got politicians calling each other all sorts of unflattering names. Pundits and talking heads shout at each other. The media tends to play up every hint of conflict, because it makes for a sexier story -– which means anyone interested in getting coverage feels compelled to make their arguments as outrageous and as incendiary as possible."

The president noted that name calling and bad feelings are nothing new in American politics:

Since the days of our founding, American politics has never been a particularly nice business. It’s always been a little less gentile during times of great change. A newspaper of the opposing party once editorialized that if Thomas Jefferson were elected, “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced.” Not subtle. Opponents of Andrew Jackson often referred to his mother as a “common prostitute,” which seems a little over the top. (Laughter.) Presidents from Teddy Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson have been accused of promoting socialism, or worse. And we’ve had arguments between politicians that have been settled with actual duels. There was even a caning once on the floor of the United States Senate -– which I’m happy to say didn’t happen while I was there. It was a few years before.
The point is, politics has never been for the thin-skinned or the faint-of-heart, and if you enter the arena, you should expect to get roughed up. Moreover, democracy in a nation of more than 300 million people is inherently difficult. It’s always been noisy and messy, contentious, complicated. We’ve been fighting about the proper size and role of government since the day the Framers gathered in Philadelphia. We’ve battled over the meaning of individual freedom and equality since the Bill of Rights was drafted. As our economy has shifted emphasis from agriculture to industry, to information, to technology, we have argued and struggled at each and every juncture over the best way to ensure that all of our citizens have a shot at opportunity.

He later provided his defense of government against its critics:

Government is the police officers who are protecting our communities, and the servicemen 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’s doing lifesaving 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 now between more government and less government, it doesn’t really fit the times in which we live. We know that too much government can stifle competition and deprive us of choice and burden us with debt. But we’ve also clearly seen the dangers of too little government -– like when a lack of accountability on Wall Street nearly leads to the collapse of our entire economy.
So, class of 2010, what we should be asking is not whether we need “big government” or a “small government,” but how we can create a smarter and better government. Because in an era of iPods and Tivo, where we have more choices than ever before -- even though I can't really 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. Government shouldn’t try to guarantee results, but it should guarantee a shot at opportunity for every American who’s willing to work hard.
So, yes, 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, remember that the ability for us to adapt our government to the needs of the age has helped make our democracy work since its inception.

He then spoke of a need for civility and defended the need for objective, nonpartisan news sources:

Today’s 24/7 echo-chamber amplifies the most inflammatory soundbites louder and faster than ever before. And it’s also, however, given us unprecedented choice. Whereas most Americans used to get their news from the same three networks over dinner, or a few influential papers on Sunday morning, we now have the option to get our information from any number of blogs or websites or cable news shows. And this can have both a good and bad development for democracy. For if we choose only to expose ourselves to opinions and viewpoints that are in line with our own, studies suggest that we become more polarized, more set in our ways. 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 us to agree on a certain set of facts to debate from. That’s 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, “Everybody is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”
Still, if you’re somebody who only reads the editorial page of The New York Times, try glancing at the page of The Wall Street Journal once in a while. 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 be changed. But the practice of listening to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship. It is essential for our democracy.

Finally, he urged the students to find a way to participate in public life:

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.

Read the full speech here and leave your thoughts in the comments section below

By Ed O'Keefe  | May 3, 2010; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  Public Service  
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