Sunday, May 9, 2010

President Obama's Commencement Address at the University of Michigan

President Obama delivered the Commencement Address last Saturday at the University of Michigan, and received an honorary degree. Go Blue.

It was a good commencement address, a fairly standard speech with no new proposals, which means it is unmemorable. I say that as praise because most graduation speeches are pedantic, clich├ęs ridden, and boring.

A few Commencement speeches are memorable, such as Secretary of State George Marshall at Harvard unveiling the Marshall Plan on June 5, 1947.

Other college addresses are historic, especially Winston Churchill at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri on March 5, 1946, denouncing The Iron Curtain.

The University of Michigan has its share of historic speeches. In an early morning campaign stop on October 14 (15), 1960, Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy proposed the Peace Corps on the steps of the Michigan Union.

Not to be outdone, President Lyndon Baines Johnson unveiled The Great Society on May 22, 1964 at the University of Michigan.

Quick, can you even remember who delivered the commencements at your graduation, or much less, what they said?

I thought so. I certainly can’t remember the ones at mine, not that I went to all of them.

However, I’ve sat through 4 decades of commencement addresses, and I can only remember two of them. One was an exceedingly long winded federal appellate judge trying to espouse and justify his judicial philosophy. The other was one of America’s most successful trial lawyers. None of his histrionics or rhetorical ability; he seemed out of it. He was out of it. We found out why a few months later. He was indicted and is now enjoying the federal penal system from the inside.

The 80,000 enthusiastic attendees at the Big House may not remember soon what the President said, but they will remember for the rest of their lives who the speaker was.

President Obama’s speech began with the usual VIP acknowledgments and thanks, proceeded with some humor, and then got into the meat of his first presentation.

The first half was a defense of government, a defense of the need for government - nothing controversial about such an idea at a progressive institution such as The University of Michigan.

His presentation was also a history lesson because he often cited Republican presidents on the need for government action.

The second half of his speech called for civility in public debates, “a basic level
of civility in our public discourse.” He reached out as the post-partisan President, the campaign mantra he assumed two years ago.

He posited the once agreed upon standard that “You can question somebody’s views and their judgment without questioning their motives or their patriotism.” The President
recognized that we cannot solve our problems by tearing each other down.

Listen carefully to these words: “You can disagree with a certain policy without demonizing the person who espouses it.”

He asked us to listen to differing opinions. Thus, if we like to read the editorial page of the New York Times, we might want to look at the Wall Street Journal occasionally. Similarly, if we’re fans of Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, we should look at the Huffington Post.

However, let us quote the former, disgraced Attorney General John Mitchell, who at the beginning of the Nixon Administration, said: “Judge us not by what we say, but by what we do.”

As President Theodore Roosevelt recognized, the President has the Bully Pulpit. The President is the Communicator in Chief. The President can also set the agenda and tone of debate on many issues. That he tried to do at Michigan.

Six justices of the Supreme Court sat in attendance at the January State of The Union Address. President Obama went out of his way to attack a recent decision of the Court in the presence of the Justices, who could not respond. He was also wrong on what the opinion stood for, but that didn’t stop the rhetoric.

In a health care speech before Congress last September, he accused opponents of his plan of spreading “lies,” “bogus claims,” and of being “cynical” and “irresponsible.” He labeled them with “demagoguery and distortion.”

That’s hardly reasoned discourse!

The Vice President has traditionally been assigned the role of attack dog, pit bull if you would, but not in the Obama Administration. The President all too often assumes the role himself.

It’s in his DNA. He cannot repress his populist, and often opportune, anger. 20 years of worshiping with Reverend Wright and associating with radicals like Bill Ayres did not mellow his views.

In the week after his speech, he criticized a proposed amendment to the Financial
Reform Bill by Republican Senator Richard Shelby: “I will not allow amendments like this one written by Wall Street’s lobbyists to pass for reform.”

President Obama addressed a month earlier a fund raiser for the embattled Senator Barbara Boxer. He said Senator Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, “paid a visit to Wall Street a week or two ago.” He “met with some of the movers and shakers up there. I don’t know exactly what was discussed. All I can tell you is when he came back, he promptly announced he would oppose the financial regulatory reform.”

Note the attack on motives rather than the merits.

Note also that Wall Street is giving a lot more to Democrats than Republicans this election cycle, and that Goldman Sachs alone had contributed $994,795 to Obama’s presidential election. He attacks “Wall Street greed,” but does not give the money back.

Another large donor, incidentally, was BP Petroleum. According to Kimberly Strassel in Friday’s Wall Street Journal, Wall Street has donated $5.3 million to Senate Democrats this election year – three times more than they’ve donated to Republicans. Such is the power of incumbency in the majority party.

Goldman Sachs and the other large banks have spent a small fortune this election cycle lobbying the Democratic leaders in Congress.

Press secretary Robert Gibbs echoed Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar on the
Gulf Oil Spill: “We will keep out boots on BP’s throat.”

That’s hardly a reasoned discourse.

A few months earlier, Mr. Gibbs mocked Governor Sarah Palin by pretending to read some notes off his palm.

Both before the election, and his inaugural, President Obama attacked “fat cat bankers.”

Chrysler and GM’s traditionally creditors took a bath on their debts, but the UAW escaped whole. When Chrysler’s creditors protested, the President’s response in April 2009 was to denounce them as “speculators” who “were hoping that everybody else would make sacrifices, and they would have to make none.”

They were simply attempting to vindicate their legal rights.

During the Presidential campaign, and after assuming office, The President singled
out Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Fox News for attack. That doesn’t sound like his Michigan speech.

He loves to attack insurance companies, especially health insurers. In one speech, he singled out insurance CEO’s 22 times. His list also includes the Chamber of Commerce, but the Chamber fights back.

When Sarah Palin criticized his nuclear disarmament proposals, his response was “I really have no response to that.” But then he contemptuously added: “The last I checked, Sarah Palin is not much of an expert on nuclear issues.”

By way of comparison with President Obama’s address, you might want to go on YouTube and check out last year’s commencement address by another young success, Larry Page, co-founder of Google and Michigan engineering alum.

Larry’s not a great speaker, either from a teleprompter or typed notes, but his speech was passion, from the heart, because it was personal. Most speakers, of course, are simply names or large donors, for which this is but an honor.

Some though, such as Page, are personally involved with the institution. Larry spoke about his grandfather who worked the line at the Chevy Plant in Flint, and how his parents met as students at the University of Michigan. He spoke about his dad, and the fight against polio.

All from the heart.

And he spoke about following your dreams. That might be a platitude, but in his case it meant Google, and the need to max out your credit cards in pursuing that dream.

All from the heart.

After the regular graduation ceremony, President Obama as Commander in Chief of the military, swore in the ROTC graduates. That was a beautiful touch to the ceremony. It also could not have occurred at his alma maters, Columbia and Harvard, because they ban ROTC from their campuses. Our great public universities have a better understanding of their role in America.

To me, the only down note on the ceremony was the performance of Michigan’s Governor Jennifer Granholm. She joined herself at the hip with the President. The two words which best describe her talk are “fawning sycophant,” although obsequious, pandering, and kiss ass comes to mind. She desperately wants out of Michigan, having governed over its collapse. She wanted a cabinet position, and will settle for a Supreme Court appointment. Anything to get out of the state!

Nothing about the graduates, and everything about her personal job application.

Michigan deserves better.

Governor Granholm inherited a miserable economy when she became governor. Detroit was collapsing, and while the Michigan economy is not a one trick pony, the fortunes and misfortunes of the auto industry drive the state. The Governor worsened the decline by enacting tax increases that drove entrepreneurs and small business out of the state. She wants even more tax increases, but the Republican Senate won’t give her any more.

But I digress.

President Obama has had a meteoric rise to success. Hubris can attach with such success.

His mentor, Saul Alinsky never taught him one of the fundamental rules of life, one which President Obama will painfully learn if the November elections turn out to be an electoral tragedy for Democrats:

Be nice to those you pass on the way up; you may see them again on the way down.

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