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Obama offers robust defense of citizenship, government

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."

Breaking that cycle of pettiness and inertia, the president told the graduates, "requires your dedicated, informed, and engaged citizenship."

And in the aftermath of tragedies in Boston, Newtown, Aurora, Texas, and other corners of America darkened by violence and heartbreak, Mr. Obama said, "we have seen the American spirit at its brightest. We've seen the petty divisions of color, and class, and creed replaced by a united urge to help each other. We've seen courage and compassion, a sense of civic duty, and a recognition that we are not a collection of strangers; we are bound to one another by a set of ideals, and laws, and commitments, and a deep devotion to this country we love, and that's what citizenship is."

But despite these reminders of the generosity of the American spirit, the president said, we have also been all too aware of recent shortcomings. "The institutions that give structure to our society have, at times, betrayed your trust," he explained. "In the run-up to the financial crisis, too many on Wall Street forgot that their obligations don't end with what's happening with their shares. In entertainment and in the media, ratings and shock value often trumped news and storytelling. And in Washington - well, this is a joyous occasion, so let me put it charitably: I think it's fair to say our democracy isn't working as well as we know it can. It could do better."

And as our institutions seek to rebuild and repair, the president said, young Americans must persevere, recognizing that there will be bumps in the road as they move into adulthood.

"In your life, you will fail," he said. "You will stumble, you will screw up, and you will fall down. But that will make you better. You'll get it right the next time."

"You can't lose heart, or grow cynical if there are twists and turns on your journey," he urged his audience. "The cynics may be the loudest voices - but I promise you, they accomplish the least."

"You have every reason to believe that your future is bright," the president promised. "You are graduating into an economy and a job market that are steadily healing. The once-dying American auto industry is on pace for its strongest performance in 20 years - something that means everything to many communities in Ohio and across the Midwest. Huge strides in domestic energy, driven in part by research at universities like this one, have us on track to secure our own energy future. There is not another country on earth that would not gladly change places with the United States of America."

Urging the graduates "to repair the middle class," to "confront the threat of climate change before it is too late," and to "protect more of our kids from the horrors of gun violence," Mr. Obama invoked President Kennedy's aphorism that "our problems are man-made; therefore they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants."

"We are blessed to live in the greatest nation on Earth," the president said, "but we can always be greater. We can always aspire to something more. That doesn't depend on who you elect to office, it depends on you, as citizens, how big you want to be, and how badly you want it."

"I dare you to do better," Mr. Obama told the graduates. "I dare you to dream bigger."

After the conclusion of his remarks, the president was presented with an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the president of The Ohio State University, E. Gordon Gee. As Mr. Obama donned a ball cap with the university logo, the crowd erupted, cheering and applauding the newest member of the Buckeye family.

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