President Obama’s Speech at Michigan: Government and Civility

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Graduation season is here, and it means more and more speeches that no one will remember.  In her commencement speech at Harvard a couple of years ago, J.K. Rowling started by saying that she thought giving a graduation speech was a great responsibility until she reflected back on her own commencement and realized she couldn’t remember a single word of the speech.  (In addition to the honor, she also thanked Harvard for creating a level of stress that caused her to lose weight.)  When I graduated from Michigan the speaker was Kingman Brewster, the President of Yale University.  I have absolutely no idea what he talked about.

On Saturday President Obama gave the commencement address at the University of Michigan.  It may not go down in history as one of his more memorable speeches, but he focused on issues important to anyone who cares about government—the role of government and the need for greater civility in our public debate.  The president pointed out that “politics has never been a particularly nice business—and it’s always been a little less gentle during times of great change.”  For example, he quoted a newspaper editorial of the period claiming that if Thomas Jefferson were elected “[m]urder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced.”  Too often people talk as if the lack of civility in government is a new development.  I’m glad that President Obama offered some much-needed perspective.

He pointed out that we have debated the role of government from the earliest days of our country, but that nearly everyone “recognized the need for a government that, while limited, can still help us adapt to a changing world.”  Leaders from both political parties have long recognized that “some things we can only do together” with the help of government.  Unfortunately, too many people now are saying “that all of government is inherently bad.”  (He described the ironic extreme reflected in one of his favorite protest signs from the health care debate: “Keep Government Out of My Medicare.”)  “[W]hat we should be asking is not whether we need a ‘big government’ or a ‘small government,’ according to President Obama, “but how we can create a smarter, better government.”  “[T]he ability for us to adapt our government to the needs of the age has helped make our democracy work since its inception.”  That sounds to me like work for the School of Government.

The other theme of the speech was that the “way to keep our democracy healthy is to maintain a basic level of civility in our public debate.”  The “twenty-four seven echo chamber” of blogs and cable news produces “vilification and over-the-top rhetoric [that] closes the door to the possibility of compromise.  It undermines democratic deliberation.”  President Obama argued that if we “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.”   Along with participation, “the practice of listening to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship.”

What is the School’s role in responding to the important issues raised by President Obama?  Our Civic Education Consortium promotes effective citizenship, and a number of our colleagues are working to help citizens bridge their differences and address state and local policy issues.  John Stephens and Rick Morse are working in complementary ways on collaborative governance, and Lydian Altman, Margaret Henderson, and Gordon Whitaker are using appreciative inquiry to help people address challenges by emphasizing strengths rather than weaknesses.  Everyone at the School is doing work that can be described as trying to create “a smarter, better government.”  One of our strategic planning implementation committees is looking at how we can do more to help public policy decision-makers.  I encourage you to watch or read President Obama’s speech.

The School’s mission is aligned with the fundamental issues that he identified as crucial to the future of our country.  That’s pretty cool.  I’d love to hear your thoughts about the School’s role in helping people understand the necessary role of government and the need for greater civility and participation in government.

4 thoughts on “President Obama’s Speech at Michigan: Government and Civility

  1. It’s funny that you mentioned commencement speakers. I was recently contemplating that particular topic and I realized that I have absolutely no idea who delivered my commencement address here at UNC in, ahem, 1981. I thought that it would be easy to determine, as there has to be a list somewhere of all commencement speakers at the school, but so far my search has been fruitless. Does anyone have any ideas?

  2. As you can imagine, I was thrilled to read the President’s remarks linking the skill of civil discourse to effective citizenship. My colleagues at the Consortium know that I am borderline obsessed with teaching students how to have “civil conversations,” and try to infuse this important civic skill into the work that we do. In the past, we have worked with the national initiative Deliberating in a Democracy (, which teaches students all over the world how to hear and understand conflicting view points. I love this program because it illustrates the nuance and complexity of many of the issues that have been reduced to “who can scream the loudest.” We are currently awaiting word on federal funding that would enable the Consortium to bring this program to teachers in North Carolina while also working with teachers in Ecuador, an exchange that I believe would be particularly beneficial given the increasing population of Latin Americans in North Carolina. So, in short, I believe that the School does and should continue to play a role in facilitating civil discourse among North Carolinians young and old, as I agree with President Obama that it is essential for effective citizenship and, ultimately, a healthy democracy.

  3. Fresh on the heels of retreat work with two local governments in the last week, I can say that promoting and facilitating civil discourse (by discussing and using Guidelines for Productive Meetings) is something I try to instill every time out. With most groups, I confess my own tendencies and early learning and more recent efforts to relearn that talking loudest and longest to wear people out until they agree with my viewpoint no longer makes sense to me, especially since it doesn’t work! I share some of the more important guidelines: balancing advocacy of your own viewpoint (while sharing the reasoning behind your views) and then inquiring for others’ viewpoint. I’m never certain how much difference this makes in the quality of on-site dialogue but I’m pretty sure they remember this point after I tell them my own story about involving my mother’s admonition and 10 bags of mulch. [Ask me offline!] Doing my part in facilitating civil discourse by poking fun of my own failings…

    To Tom: If it makes you feel any better, that was the year I graduated from UNC too, and, no…I don’ remember the speaker either!

  4. Thanks for this post Mike. This speech has got to be best distillation of how I personally feel about politics and citizenship that I’ve ever read. The President even uses the phrase “government is us,” which happens to be the title of one of my favorite books on citizen participation. I’ve shared the link to this speech with all my friends!

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