Obama offers robust defense of citizenship, government

President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address during a ceremony at Ohio State University on May 5, 2013 in Columbus, Ohio. MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama promised to eschew partisanship in his commencement address before thousands of graduates of The Ohio State University on Sunday, and it was a vow he kept - not once did he mention either of the parties by name.

But there was an unmistakable political cast to his remarks as he urged the audience of young adults to reject detachment and naked self-interest in favor of cooperation and citizenship - to recognize that "every-man-for-himself" will never accomplish as much as "we're-all-in-this-together."

The graduates, Mr. Obama said, represent a "generation possessed with that most American of ideas - that people who love their country can change it for the better."

"There is a word for this," he said. "It's citizenship. We don't always talk about this idea much these days - citizenship - let alone celebrate it. Sometimes, we see it as a virtue from another time, a distant past - one that's slipping from a society that celebrates individual ambition above all else."

The virtue of citizenship is a powerful one, the president said, because "we know this country cannot accomplish great things if we pursue nothing greater than our own individual ambition."

The concept of citizenship formed the backbone of the president's remarks, as he asked the audience to remember that "as Americans, we are blessed with God-given and inalienable rights, but with those rights come responsibilities - to ourselves, to one another, and to future generations."

Laced throughout his exaltation of citizenship was a defense of government, a rebuff of those who insist that the state is always a force for ill.

"Unfortunately, you've grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that's the root of all our problems, even as some of these voices do their best to gum up the works; they'll warn that tyranny's always lurking just around the corner," the president said. "You should reject these voices. Because what they suggest is that our brave, creative, unique experiment in self-rule is somehow just a sham with which we can't be trusted."

"We have never been a people who place all our faith in government to solve our problems, nor do we want it to," Mr. Obama continued. "But we don't think the government is the source of all our problems, either...As citizens, we understand that it's not about what Americans can do for us, It's about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but absolutely necessary work of self-government."

It was an unmistakable attempt to nudge the pendulum of American politics away from the conviction that "government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem," a line that was immortalized in President Ronald Reagan's first inaugural address in 1981.

When we abdicate our authority to govern together as citizens, the president warned, "we grant our silent consent to someone who'll gladly claim it."

"That's how we end up with lobbyists who set the agenda," Mr. Obama explained. "That's how a small minority of lawmakers get cover to defeat something the vast majority of their constituents want. That's how our political system gets consumed by small things when we are a people called to do great things - like rebuild a middle class, and reverse the rise of inequality, and repair the deteriorating climate that threatens everything we plan to leave for our kids and grandkids."

  • Jake Miller