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.”

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[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.”

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[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).

A Civics Lesson in President Obama’s Final State of the Union Address

On January 13, 2016, President Barack Obama delivered his final State of the Union Address to the U.S. Congress and the American People.[1] It included a general civics lesson that is now a general theme of many of his speeches this year, the final one of his presidency. Below a photograph of the President on this occasion.

Ste Union

A similar civics lesson was contained in his May 7 commencement speech at Howard University that was discussed in a previous post and in his February 10 speech to the Illinois General Assembly and his April 23 comments to a Town Hall meeting in the United Kingdom, both of which will be reviewed in subsequent posts. Here then is the civics lesson in his final State of the Union Address

Introduction

“[I]f we want a better politics, it’s not enough just to change a congressman or change a senator or even change a President. We have to change the system to reflect our better selves.”

Improve congressional redistricting

We have “to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around. Let a bipartisan group do it.”

Reduce influence of money in politics

“We have to reduce the influence of money in our politics, so that a handful of families or hidden interests can’t bankroll our elections. And if our existing approach to campaign finance reform can’t pass muster in the courts, we need to work together to find a real solution — because it’s a problem.”

Make voting easier

“We’ve got to make it easier to vote, not harder. We need to modernize it for the way we live now. This is America: We want to make it easier for people to participate.”

Importance of these changes

“What I’m suggesting is hard. It’s a lot easier to be cynical; to accept that change is not possible, and politics is hopeless, and the problem is all the folks who are elected don’t care, and to believe that our voices and actions don’t matter. But if we give up now, then we forsake a better future. Those with money and power will gain greater control over the decisions that could send a young soldier to war, or allow another economic disaster, or roll back the equal rights and voting rights that generations of Americans have fought, even died, to secure. And then, as frustration grows, there will be voices urging us to fall back into our respective tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens who don’t look like us, or pray like us, or vote like we do, or share the same background.”

“We can’t afford to go down that path. It won’t deliver the economy we want. It will not produce the security we want. But most of all, it contradicts everything that makes us the envy of the world.”

“So, my fellow Americans, whatever you may believe, whether you prefer one party or no party, whether you supported my agenda or fought as hard as you could against it — our collective futures depends on your willingness to uphold your duties as a citizen. To vote. To speak out. To stand up for others, especially the weak, especially the vulnerable, knowing that each of us is only here because somebody, somewhere, stood up for us.”

“We need every American to stay active in our public life — and not just during election time — so that our public life reflects the goodness and the decency that I see in the American people every single day.”

“It is not easy. Our brand of democracy is hard. But I can promise that a little over a year from now, when I no longer hold this office, I will be right there with you as a citizen, inspired by those voices of fairness and vision, of grit and good humor and kindness that helped America travel so far. Voices that help us see ourselves not, first and foremost, as black or white, or Asian or Latino, not as gay or straight, immigrant or native-born, not as Democrat or Republican, but as Americans first, bound by a common creed. Voices Dr. King believed would have the final word — voices of unarmed truth and unconditional love.”

“That’s the America I know. That’s the country we love. Clear-eyed. Big-hearted. Undaunted by challenge. Optimistic that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word. That’s what makes me so hopeful about our future. I believe in change because I believe in you, the American people.”

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[1] White House, Remarks of President Barack Obama—State of the Union Address—As Delivered (Jan. 13, 2016).

 

U.S. Needs New Voting Rights Act

Problems exist with the present U.S. voting systems and procedures. Here are just a few:

  • In the November 2012 general election, many states that were controlled by Republican state legislatures and governors adopted various measures that, in my opinion, were intended to suppress voting by U.S. citizens, including minorities, who were deemed likely to vote for Democratic candidates.
  • Late this June the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated an important provision of the Voting Rights act of 2006. [1]
  • Immediately after that Supreme Court decision, some states–most notably Texas [2] and North Carolina–have moved to implement or adopt restrictive voting laws. [3]

This blog has criticized these efforts to restrict voting and that Supreme Court decision. This blog also has proposed ways to expand voting in this country, many of which have been voiced as well by Norman Ornstein, author and Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.[4]

Here are my suggestions for a new federal Voting Rights Act.

First, every U.S. citizen entitled to vote.

That includes all citizens who have been convicted of felonies and who are still in prison and those who have served their sentences. They are human beings who have interests and opinions, and they have unique experiences of life inside our prisons, which are often neglected in the political debate about allocation of resources.

Now only two states (Maine and Vermont) impose no voting restrictions on felons or ex-felons. Other states impose various restrictions, with 12 states (six in the South) banning ex-felons from voting even after they have completed prison and probation or parole. As a result, an estimated 5.9 million citizens are disenfranchised on this basis, about one-fourth of whom are still in prison. Because 38.2% of these people are African-American, it is also a racial justice issue.

The electorate also should include all children. They too are human beings with interests that should be reflected in elections. This is especially true in an electorate in which older citizens tend to vote in higher percentages and naturally have an interest in programs and services that benefit them. I am a member of the older group and yet believe our political influence needs to be counterbalanced by the voices of the youngest. Creation of a voting system to allow all children to vote would require a lot of careful consideration of how this could be accomplished.  It presumably would have parents or guardians voting for their children through a certain age such as 16 or 18.[5]

Second, every U.S. citizen required to vote.

Every citizen should be required to vote at least in national elections.

This is true in many countries so it can be done. Such a system, I believe, would have the beneficial effect of causing political parties and candidates to appeal to voters in the middle of the political spectrum and thereby combat the polarization of our political system. Again, creation of such a system would require careful consideration of how that could be done.

Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann have made such a proposal. One means of enforcing such a law, they say, would be a modest fine, say $15, for failure to vote with increased amounts for repeated failures. Another way would be to provide a small tax credit for voting.

Third, no racial discrimination in voting.

Using the language of the Voting Rights Act of 2006, forbid any “standard, practice, or procedure” that “results in a denial or abridgment of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.”

Fourth, simplified voting laws and procedure.

To make it easier to vote, Ornstein and Mann offer the following suggestions:

a. A new voter registration regime. Ornstein asserts, “eligible citizens should be presumed registered.”  Allow online registration and transfer of such records when the voter moves to a new home by sharing data with private databases. Allow “same-day voter registration available for those not registered via their draft registration or driver’s license. Ideally, Congress would provide the funds to modernize voter registration lists and create a 21st-century voting process in which voters could get personalized ballots printed, with all the offices they are eligible to vote on, at any polling place in their vicinity. Why shouldn’t Americans be able to vote at any nearby polling center?”

b. More easily accessible polling places. Use facilities in or near shopping centers or arenas.

c. Weekend Election “Day.”  As Ornstein says, “’Election Day’ should suit contemporary American life:  a 24-hour period from noon Saturday to noon Sunday, with early voting the week before. This would eliminate ‘rush-hour’ backlogs early in the morning and at the end of the day, as well as Sabbath problems. If Wal-Mart can stay open 24/7, our democracy can stay open 24 hours once every two years.”

d. Social Security cards as valid voter IDs. Any U.S. citizen, Ornstein asserts, “who can provide proof of a valid Social Security number should be able to obtain, free, a Social Security card with a photo. It should be mandated as acceptable for identification wherever a photo ID is required to vote. Such cards should be available not just at Social Security offices but also at post offices.”

e. Uniform separate federal election ballot. Finally, Ornstein believes “Congress has the clear constitutional right to manage federal elections. A separate ballot for federal races strengthens that control. Other advantages include no more confusing butterfly ballots; there would be no more than three races (president, Senate and House) on a federal ballot. No more provisional ballots or access denied if someone shows up at the wrong polling place; the vote would still count only for those federal offices.”

Conclusion

These voting changes would help make the federal government more accountable to the citizens. Other changes to aid in this effort have been suggested in this blog: certain constitutional changes, elimination of the U.S. Senate’s filibuster rule and reforming the system for creating new congressional districts after the decennial census.


[1] Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens has criticized the Court’s decision invalidating a provision of the Voting Rights Act.

[2] On July 25th the Department of Justice sued the State of Texas to ask a federal court to require Texas to get permission from the federal government before making voting changes. The suit is based upon section 3 of the Voting Rights Act of 2006 which allows such relief if the Government shows that the jurisdiction has committed constitutional violations with respect to voting. Richard H. Pildes, a New York University professor said, “If this strategy works, it will become a way of partially updating the Voting Rights Act through the courts.”  A Washington Post editorial endorsed this approach while also calling on Congress to enact a new statutory formula for comprehensive coverage of states for such preclearance. An editorial in the New York Times also supports this approach as does Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne, Jr.

[3] New York Times columnist, Charles Blow, points out that almost all of the states that were covered by the Voting Rights Act provision that was invalidated are Republican-controlled and are now wasting “no time . . .  to institute efforts to suppress the vote in the next election and beyond.”

4] Thomas E. Mann & Norman J. Ornstein, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collides with the New Politics of Extremism (Basic Books; New York 2012); Ornstein, Let’s enact a new Voting Rights Act, Wash. Post (July 17, 2013).

[5] I originally made such a suggestion in 1996.