Last Saturday, President Obama delivered one of four commencement addresses he will give this spring, but rather than inspire the new graduates of the University of Michigan to envision and embark on their own versions of the American dream, Mr. Obama offered a puzzling and preachy message on his version of civics.
Speaking at the "Big House," U of M's famed football stadium, the president instructed the 8,500 graduates and roughly 70,000 spectators in "Democracy 101." The edited version: Government is good.
Even Michigan grads didn't necessarily appreciate his remarks, and that's saying something. The school's student newspaper, the Michigan Daily, ran this headline: "Graduates offer mixed reviews of Obama's speech."
Full disclosure: I went to the school up the road. The one with Sparty. And Tom Izzo. And the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory.
Where I live, one gets used to a certain intellectual superiority emanating from Ann Arbor. I imagine it's a feeling similar to the smugness some schools have about always going to the NCAA men's basketball tournament rather than crossing fingers to reach the NIT — it's just a given. But I digress.
So forgive me if I'm unimpressed that the University of Michigan (I cannot bring myself to capitalize the word "the") was able to convince yet another sitting president to speak at its commencement ceremony. Mr. Obama is the fourth to do so in the past 50 years.
Beyond mere graduation speeches, presidents have come to the campus of U of M to unveil major initiatives (the Peace Corps, the Great Society) as well as to offer in-depth explanations of policy.
But not this president. In fact, one graduate noted that his speech seemed to be a recycled version of the talk he gave a year ago at Notre Dame University. Another was quoted as saying, "It didn't seem to have anything to do with us," meaning the graduating class of 2010.Indeed. U of M's graduates, as well as thousands more who attended Michigan's 50 other public and private colleges and universities, face a 14.1 percent unemployment rate in the state. "Brain drain" has reached epic proportions. The state's 15 public universities serve 300,000 students, nearly half of whom will leave the state after earning their degrees.
Some of the people with the best chance of rescuing this state were sitting in the seats in front of their president on Saturday afternoon. Talk about an opportunity.
He could have encouraged them to pursue their personal goals for success and achievement right here in a state that desperately needs their talents. He could have inspired them to become a new generation of businessmen and women who could re-create the state's dismal economy and save its dying cities. He should have invited them to make Michigan a laboratory for new thinking and new solutions that would let them reach their individual goals. He ought to have said, "Go for your dreams and take this state with you on your ride to success."
Instead he said this: "So, class of 2010, what we should be asking is not whether we need 'big government' or a 'small government,' but how we can create a smarter and better government."
Mostly, Mr. Obama lectured his audience under the guise of the question: "How will you keep our democracy going?" This is a question he posed just after telling the story of Benjamin Franklin being asked, "Well, Doctor, what have we got — a republic or a monarchy?' And Franklin gave an answer that's been quoted for ages: He said, 'A republic, if you can keep it.' If you can keep it."
Even at Michigan, they know that the words "democracy" and "republic" are not interchangeable.
Other gems for the grads: Don't use words like "socialist" to describe the government's growing usurpation of personal freedom. It's uncivil to say things like that.
And participate. You don't necessarily have to run for office, but get involved. (Read: Be ready to pay hefty taxes. That's a great way to participate.)
It's no wonder the next generation seems cynical. On the day on which they might be the most able to imagine that they could reach their loftiest personal dreams and most ambitious goals, they were asked to "contribute part of your life to the life of this country."
Time for the real world, I guess.