Praise for President Obama’s Recent Civics Lessons 

Frank Bruni, a New York Times columnist, has high praise for President Obama’s commencement address at Howard University that was covered in a prior post. Bruni sees the speech as “a pointed, powerful civics lesson” for all of us to consider because Obama was “issuing challenges to groups—African-Americans, college students—from whom he has drawn strong support and with whom he has real credibility “ and because he speaks with “accuracy and eloquence . . . [in] diagnosing current ills.”[1]

Bruni also has high marks for similar words this year from Obama in his final State of the Union Address,[2] his speech to the Illinois General Assembly[3] and his remarks at a town hall session in London.[4] Another Obama speech that touched on these subjects came just last Sunday at Rutgers University.[5]

Emphasizing that Obama in the Howard University commencement address was giving a “pointed, powerful civics lesson . . . to all of us—to America,” Bruni says Obama was chiding some young people “for demonizing enemies and silencing opponents. He cautioned them against a sense of grievance too exaggerated and an outrage bereft of perspective.” In Obama’s words, “If you had to choose a time to be, in the words of Lorraine Hansberry, ‘young, gifted and black’ in America, you would choose right now. To deny how far we’ve come would do a disservice to the cause of justice.’”

“Enough,” Obama was saying, “with a kind of identity politics that can shove aside common purpose. Enough with a partisanship so caustic that it bleeds into hatred Enough with such deafening sound and blinding fury in our public debate.”

Here Bruni referenced Obama’s “wise and glorious” February 2016 speech to the Illinois General Assembly. There Obama said, “We’ve got to build a better politics — one that’s less of a spectacle and more of a battle of ideas.” Otherwise, he warned, “Extreme voices fill the void.”

In the Illinois speech Obama also diagnosed current ills with “accuracy and eloquence,” when he noted that “while ugly partisanship has always existed, it’s fed in our digital era by voters’ ability to curate information from only those news sources and social-media feeds that echo and amplify their prejudices. We can choose our own facts,” he lamented. “We don’t have a common basis for what’s true and what’s not.” Advocacy groups often make matters worse, he added, by “keeping their members agitated as much as possible, assured of the righteousness of their cause.”

“We must expand our moral imaginations,” Obama told the predominantly African-American audience at Howard, imploring them to recognize “the middle-aged white guy who you may think has all the advantages, but over the last several decades has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change, and feels powerless to stop it. You got to get in his head, too.” This thought was also mentioned by Obama in late April at a town-hall-style meeting in London, when he said that once “elected officials or people who are in a position to start bringing about change are ready to sit down with you, then you can’t just keep on yelling at them.”

At Howard, Obama insisted that change “requires listening to those with whom you disagree, and being prepared to compromise. If you think that the only way forward is to be as uncompromising as possible, you will feel good about yourself, you will enjoy a certain moral purity, but you’re not going to get what you want,” he continued. “So don’t try to shut folks out. Don’t try to shut them down, no matter how much you might disagree with them.”

These recent speeches, Bruni concludes, bring Obama “full circle, from the audacity to the tenacity of hope.”

================================

[1] Bruni, Obama’s Gorgeous Goodbye, N.Y. Times (May 11, 2016).

[2] A Civics Lesson in President Obama’s Final State of the Union Address, dwkcommentaries.com (May 12, 2016).

[3] Another Civics Lesson from President Obama at the Illinois General Assembly, dwkcommentaries.com (May 13, 2016).

[4] President Obama’s Civics Lesson at Town Hall Meeting in London, dwkcommentaries.com (May 14, 2016).

[5] Political and Civics Lessons from President Obama at Rutgers University, dwkcommentaries.com (May 16, 2016).

Political and Civics Lessons from President Obama at Rutgers University

On May 15, President Obama delivered the commencement address at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.[1] Below are photographs of the President and the graduates at Rutgers.

Obama @ Rutgers

Rutegers stduents

 

 

 

 

The press naturally focused on the following remarks that indirectly criticized Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee:

  • “When you hear someone longing for the “good old days,” . . . It ain’t so. The ‘good old days’ weren’t that great.”
  • “The world is more interconnected than ever before, and it’s becoming more connected every day.  Building walls won’t change that. . . . [To] help ourselves we’ve got to help others, not pull up the drawbridge and try to keep the world out. . . . Building walls . . . won’t boost our economy, and it won’t enhance our security either.”
  • “Isolating or disparaging Muslims, suggesting that they should be treated differently when it comes to entering this country . . . is not just a betrayal of our values . . . it would alienate the very communities at home and abroad who are our most important partners in the fight against violent extremism.   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.”
  • “Facts, evidence, reason, logic, an understanding of science — these are good things. These are qualities you want in people making policy. Facts, evidence, reason, logic, an understanding of science — these are good things. These are qualities you want in people making policy. . . . 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 keeping it real, or telling it like it is. That’s not challenging political correctness.  That’s just not knowing what you’re talking about.”

Obama also continued with his civics lessons that were discussed in his final State of the Union Address and remarks at the Illinois General Assembly, a London town hall meeting and Howard University’s commencement ceremony that were discussed in earlier posts. Here are the similar remarks at Rutgers.

“America’s progress has never been smooth or steady.  Progress doesn’t travel in a straight line.  It zigs and zags in fits and starts.  Progress in America has been hard and contentious, and sometimes bloody.  It remains uneven and at times, for every two steps forward, it feels like we take one step back.”

“But progress is bumpy.  It always has been.  But because of dreamers and innovators and strivers and activists, progress has been this nation’s hallmark.  I’m fond of quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’ It bends towards justice.  I believe that.  But I also believe that the arc of our nation, the arc of the world does not bend towards justice, or freedom, or equality, or prosperity on its own.  It depends on us, on the choices we make, particularly at certain inflection points in history; particularly when big changes are happening and everything seems up for grabs.”

“You are graduating at such an inflection point.  Since the start of this new millennium, you’ve already witnessed horrific terrorist attacks, and war, and a Great Recession.  You’ve seen economic and technological and cultural shifts that are profoundly altering how we work and how we communicate, how we live, how we form families.  The pace of change is not subsiding; it is accelerating.  And these changes offer not only great opportunity, but also great peril.”

Therefore, the new graduates need to participate in the political process. You need to vote. “And if participation means voting, and it means compromise, and organizing and advocacy, it also means listening to those who don’t agree with you.”

“If you disagree with somebody, bring them in and ask them tough questions.  Hold their feet to the fire.  Make them defend their positions.   If somebody has got a bad or offensive idea, prove it wrong.  Engage it.  Debate it.  Stand up for what you believe in. Don’t be scared to take somebody on.  Don’t feel like you got to shut your ears off because you’re too fragile and somebody might offend your sensibilities.  Go at them if they’re not making any sense. Use your logic and reason and words.  And by doing so, you’ll strengthen your own position, and you’ll hone your arguments.  And maybe you’ll learn something and realize you don’t know everything.  And you may have a new understanding not only about what your opponents believe but maybe what you believe.  Either way, you win.  And more importantly, our democracy wins.”

“Gear yourself for the long haul.  Whatever path you choose, you’re going to have some setbacks.  You will deal occasionally with foolish people.  You will be frustrated.  You’ll have a boss that’s not great.  You won’t always get everything you want — at least not as fast as you want it.  So you have to stick with it.  You have to be persistent.  And success, however small, however incomplete, success is still success. . . . Better is good.  It may not be perfect, it may not be great, but it’s good.  That’s how progress happens — in societies and in our own lives.”

“So don’t lose hope if sometimes you hit a roadblock.  Don’t lose hope in the face of naysayers.  And certainly don’t let resistance make you cynical.  Cynicism is so easy, and cynics don’t accomplish much.  As a friend of mine who happens to be from New Jersey, a guy named Bruce Springsteen, once sang, “they spend their lives waiting for a moment that just don’t come.”  Don’t let that be you.  Don’t waste your time waiting.”

“Throughout our history, a new generation of Americans has reached up and bent the arc of history in the direction of more freedom, and more opportunity, and more justice.”

=============================================

[1] White House, Remarks by the President at Commencement Address at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey (May 15, 2016); Rutgers University, Commencement Address: President Barack Obama (May 15, 2016) (video); Harris, Obama Swipes at Trump, but Doesn’t Name Him, in Speech at Rutgers, N.Y. Times (May 15, 2016).

Another Civics Lesson from President Obama at the Illinois General Assembly

On February 10, 2016–the ninth anniversary of his announcement that he was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination[1]–President Barack Obama returned to the Illinois General Assembly, where he had served as a state senator. Below are photographs of Obama on that occasion and of the House Chamber where he spoke.

Obama in Ill

Ill Gen A Hall

 

 

 

 

His address to the Assembly recalled some of the details of that service. But he also made comments of more general import. Here they are.[2]

Introduction

He said,“if we just approached our national politics the same way the American people approach their daily lives –- at the workplace, at the Little League game; at church or the synagogue — with common sense, and a commitment to fair play and basic courtesy, that there is no problem that we couldn’t solve together. “

“And as an American citizen, I understand that our progress is not inevitable — our progress has never been inevitable.  It must be fought for, and won by all of us, with the kind of patriotism that our fellow Illinoisan, Adlai Stevenson, once described not as a ‘short, frenzied outburst of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.’ It requires citizenship and a sense that we are one.”

Current State of Our Politics

Today “that kind of citizenship is threatened by a poisonous political climate that pushes people away from participating in our public life.  It turns folks off.  It discourages them, makes them cynical.  And when that happens, more powerful and extreme voices fill the void.  When that happens, progress stalls.  And that’s how we end up with only a handful of lobbyists setting the agenda.  That’s how we end up with policies that are detached from what working families face every day.  That’s how we end up with the well-connected who publicly demand that government stay out of their business but then whisper in its ear for special treatment.”

“That’s how our political system gets consumed by small things when we are a people that are called to do great things — to give everybody a shot in a changing economy; to keep America safe and strong in an uncertain world; to repair our climate before it threatens everything we leave for our kids.”

“What can we do, all of us, together, to try to make our politics better? “

 Myths About Our Current Politics

So, first, let’s put to rest a couple of myths about our politics.  One is the myth that the problems with our politics are new.  They are not.  American politics has never been particularly gentle or high-minded — especially not during times of great change.”

“There’s also the notion sometimes that our politics are broken because politicians are significantly more corrupt or beholden to big money than they used to be.  There’s no doubt that lobbyists still have easier access to the halls of power than the average American.  There’s a lot of work that we need to do to make sure that the system works for ordinary people and not just the well-connected.  That’s true at the federal level; that’s true at the state level.  Folks aren’t entirely wrong when they feel as if the system too often is rigged and does not address their interests. . . . But the truth is that the kind of corruption that is blatant, of the sort that we saw in the past, is much less likely in today’s politics.”

“And it also isn’t true that today’s issues are inherently more polarizing than the past.  I remember, we endured four years of Civil War that resulted in hundreds of thousands of dead Americans.  This country was divided on a fundamental question. We’ve [also] been arguing since our founding over the proper size and role of government; the meaning of individual freedom and equality; over war and peace, and the best way to give all of our citizens opportunity.  And these are important debates that everybody should join, with all the rigor that a free people require.”

Problems with Our Current Politics

“We’ve always gone through periods when our democracy seems stuck.  And when that happens, we have to find a new way of doing business.”

“We’re in one of those moments.  We’ve got to build a better politics — one that’s less of a spectacle and more of a battle of ideas; one that’s less of a business and more of a mission; one that understands the success of the American experiment rests on our willingness to engage all our citizens in this work.”

“What’s different today is the nature and the extent of the polarization.  How ideologically divided the parties are is brought about by some of the same long-term trends in our politics and our culture.  The parties themselves have become more homogenous than ever.  A great sorting has taken place that drove Southern conservatives out of the Democratic Party, Northern moderates out of the Republican Party, so you don’t have within each party as much diversity of views.”

“And you’ve got a fractured media.  Some folks watch FOX News; some folks read the Huffington Post.  And very often, what’s profitable is the most sensational conflict and the most incendiary sound bites.  And we can choose our own facts.  We don’t have a common basis for what’s true and what’s not.”

“You’ve got advocacy groups that, frankly, sometimes benefit from keeping their members agitated as much as possible, assured of the righteousness of their cause.  Unlimited dark money — money that nobody knows where it’s coming from, who’s paying — drowns out ordinary voices.  And far too many of us surrender our voices entirely by choosing not to vote.  And this polarization is pervasive.”

“This has real impact on whether or not we can get things done together.  This has a real impact on whether families are able to support themselves, or whether the homeless are getting shelter on a cold day.  It makes a difference as to the quality of the education that kids are getting.  This is not an abstraction.”

“But so often, these debates, particularly in Washington but increasingly in state legislatures, become abstractions.  It’s as if there are no people involved, it’s just cardboard cutouts and caricatures of positions.  It encourages the kind of ideological fealty that rejects any compromise as a form of weakness.  And in a big, complicated democracy like ours, if we can’t compromise, by definition, we can’t govern ourselves.”

“So when I hear voices in either party boast of their refusal to compromise as an accomplishment in and of itself, I’m not impressed.  All that does is prevent what most Americans would consider actual accomplishments — like fixing roads, educating kids, passing budgets, cleaning our environment, making our streets safe.”

“Our Founders trusted us with the keys to this system of self-government.  Our politics is the place where we try to make this incredible machinery work; where we come together to settle our differences and solve big problems, do big things together that we could not possibly do alone.  And our Founders anchored all this in a visionary Constitution that separates power and demands compromise, precisely to prevent one party, or one wing of a party, or one faction, or some powerful interests from getting 100 percent of its way.”

“So when either side makes blanket promises to their base that it can’t possibly meet . . . [it] means that the supporters will be perennially disappointed.  It only adds to folks’ sense that the system is rigged.  It’s one of the reasons why we see these big electoral swings every few years.  It’s why people are so cynical.”

 Proposed Changes in Our Politics

“But I do want to offer [four] . . . steps that we can take that I believe would help reform our institutions and move our system in a way that helps reflect our better selves.”

First. Take “or at least reduce, some of the corrosive influence of money in our politics.”

Second. Rethink “the way that we draw our congressional districts.”

“The fact is, today technology allows parties in power to precision-draw constituencies so that the opposition’s supporters are packed into as few districts as possible. . . .   And while this gerrymandering may insulate some incumbents from a serious challenge from the other party, it also means that the main thing those incumbents are worried about are challengers from the most extreme voices in their own party.”

“That’s what’s happened in Congress [with less than 10 percent of districts that are competitive]. So our debates move away from the middle, where most Americans are, towards the far ends of the spectrum.  And that polarizes us further.”

“Now, this is something we have the power to fix.  And once the next census rolls around and we have the most up-to-date picture of America’s population, we should change the way our districts are drawn.”[3]

Third. “Make . . . voting easier, not harder; and modernize . . . it for the way that we live now.”

“Now, the more Americans use their voice and participate, the less captive our politics will be to narrow constituencies.  No matter how much undisclosed money is spent, no matter how many negative ads are run, no matter how unrepresentative a district is drawn, if everybody voted, if a far larger number of people voted, that would overcome in many ways some of these other institutional barriers.  It would make our politics better.”

Fourth. We “also have a responsibility to change the way that we, as elected officials and as citizens, work together.  Because this democracy only works when we get both right — when the system is fair, but also when we build a culture that is trying to make it work.” As Deval Patrick, former Governor of Massachusetts said to his constituents,  ‘Insist on us having a modicum of civility.’”

“Rather than reward those who’d disenfranchise any segment of America, we’ve got to insist that everybody arm themselves with information, and facts, and that they vote.”

“Rather than reward the most extreme voices, or the most divisive language, or who is best at launching schoolyard taunts, we should insist on a higher form of discourse in our common life, one based on empathy and respect.”

“Rather than paint those who disagree with us as motivated by malice, to suggest that any of us lack patriotism — we can insist, as Lincoln did, that we are not enemies, but friends; that our fellow Americans are not only entitled to a different point of view, but that they love this country as much as we do.”

“Rather than reward a 24/7 media that so often thrives on sensationalism and conflict, we have to stand up and insist, no, reason matters, facts matter; issues are complicated.”

“Rather than accept the notion that compromise is a sellout to one side, we’ve got to insist on the opposite — that it can be a genuine victory that means progress for all sides.”

==================================

[1] Barack Obama’s Comments About Cuba During His Campaign for the Democratic Party’s Presidential Nomination, 2007-2008, dwkcommentaries.com (July 13, 2015).

[2] White House, Remarks by the President in Address to the Illinois General Assembly (Feb. 10, 2016).

[3] On April 20, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously upheld Arizona’s congressional redistricting map that had been established by an independent redistricting commission. The Court’s opinion, by Justice Stephen Breyer, held that the redistricting did not violate the principle of “one person one vote” because the contested population deviations were less than the 10 percent that the Supreme Court has said is generally constitutionally tolerable. “Given the inherent difficulty of measuring and comparing factors that may legitimately account for small deviations from strict mathematical equality, we believe that attacks on deviations under 10 percent will succeed only rarely, in unusual cases.” The opinion added that factors other than partisanship appeared to explain the population disparities in Arizona’s districts: compactness, contiguity, respect for “communities of interest,” geography, local boundaries, political competitiveness and compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act. (Liptak, Supreme Court Upholds Arizona’s Redrawn Legislative Map, N.Y. Times (April 20, 2016); Harris v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Comm’n, No. 14-232 (U.S. Sup. Ct. April 20, 2016).