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Reflections on President Obama's University of Michigan Commencement Speech

On May 1, 2010, before a crowd of about eighty thousand people in the University of Michigan Stadium, President Obama gave one of his best speeches since becoming president. It was a commencement address that attempted to outline a proper government role and detoxify the present toxic political atmosphere. At the same time, he furnished his audience with some historical context—e.g., quoting a newspaper that wrote if Thomas Jefferson was elected, "Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced." In attempting to discourage such extreme rhetoric in our own day, Obama displayed political wisdom and stimulated reflection on values advocated by individuals such as our founding fathers and Abraham Lincoln.

In the new book How to Achieve a Heaven on Earth, which contains 101 essays, including one by President Obama, wisdom scholar Copthorne Macdonald writes in "The Centrality of Wisdom" that "values are at the heart of the matter." To achieve wisdom he recommends "wisdom-associated values." Among a longer list of such values recommended by him and other wisdom scholars, there are several that Obama alluded to in his speech—passion, empathy, tolerance, and humility.

Regarding passion, he said: "These arguments we're having over government and health care and war and taxes—these are serious arguments. They should arouse people's passions, and it's important for everybody to join in the debate, with all the vigor that the maintenance of a free people requires."

But on empathy and tolerance, he had more to say:

We can't expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down. You can disagree with a certain policy without demonizing the person who espouses it. You can question somebody's views and their judgment without questioning their motives or their patriotism. Throwing around phrases like "socialists" and "Soviet-style takeover" and "fascist" and "right-wing nut" that may grab headlines, but it also has the effect of comparing our government, our political opponents, to authoritarian, even murderous regimes. . . .

. . . The problem is that this kind of vilification and over-the-top rhetoric closes the door to the possibility of compromise. It undermines democratic deliberation. It prevents learning –- since, after all, why should we listen to a "fascist," or a "socialist," or a "right-wing nut," or a left-wing nut"?

It makes it nearly impossible for people who have legitimate but bridgeable differences to sit down at the same table and hash things out. It robs us of a rational and serious debate, the one we need to have about the very real and very big challenges facing this nation. . . .

. . . Part of what civility requires is that we recall the simple lesson most of us learned from our parents: Treat others as you would like to be treated, with courtesy and respect. . . .

. . . If we choose only to expose ourselves to opinions and viewpoints that are in line with our own, studies suggest that we become more polarized, more set in our ways. That will only reinforce and even deepen the political divides in this country.

But if we choose to 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. . . .

. . . If you're somebody who only reads the editorial page of the New York Times, try glancing at the page of the Wall Street Journal once in a while. If you're a fan of Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, try reading a few columns on the Huffington Post website. It may make your blood boil; your mind may not be changed. But the practice of listening to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship. It is essential for our democracy.

Much of what the president said on passion, empathy, and tolerance, he had said before. In The Audacity of Hope (2006), for example, he acknowledged that passion for values like justice was important, but also stated that empathy was central to his moral code and how he understood the Golden Rule, i.e. "treat others as you would like to be treated." And he emphasized how important it was "to stand in somebody else's shoes and see through their eyes." In a passage difficult for many political partisans to relate to, he wrote about President George W. Bush: "I find the president and those who surround him pretty much like everybody else, possessed of the same mix of virtues and vices, insecurities and long-buried injuries, as the rest of us. No matter how wrong headed I might consider their policies to be … I still find it possible, in talking to these men and women, to understand their motives, and to recognize in them values I share."

In his Michigan speech, Obama did not directly address the need for humility, but he certainly suggested it. In The Audacity of Hope he wrote that "values are faithfully applied to the facts before us, while ideology overrides whatever facts call theory into question." To the Michigan graduates, he quoted the former New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan who once said, "Everybody is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts." Humility should suggest to us that we could be wrong, that our opinions are just that and not necessarily the truth. Obama's words in Michigan Stadium about seeking "out information that challenges our assumptions and our beliefs" in order to "begin to understand where the people who disagree with us are coming from" suggests possessing enough humility to realize we could be wrong.

Some Obama critics have perceived him not as humble, but as cocky and arrogant. There is little doubt that he is a confident man. And Washington is not especially conducive to fostering humility. In late 2005 Democratic Congressman David Price (N.C.) wrote that "humility is out of fashion these days. Political leaders, advocates, and pundits often display an in-your-face assertiveness, seeming to equate uncertainty or even reflectiveness with weakness and a lack of moral fiber." By 2010 not much has changed.

One of the great ego traps for any president is being surrounded by "yes men and women" who tell him (and maybe someday her) that he is always right. In The Audacity of Hope, Obama wrote of an occasion when President Bush's "eyes became fixed, his voice took on the agitated, rapid tone of someone neither accustomed to nor welcoming interruption. His easy affability was replaced by an almost messianic certainty. As I watched my mostly Republican Senate colleagues hang on his every word, I was reminded of the dangerous isolation that power can bring, and appreciated the founders' wisdom in designing a system to keep power in check."

To avoid the isolation trap, President Obama relishes leaving Washington on occasion to visit other parts of the country. Also, as he told the Michigan graduates, he decided that he would read ten letters per day from "ordinary Americans," labeling it as his "modest effort to remind myself of why I ran in the first place." He added that "some express gratitude, some express anger. I'd say a good solid third call me an idiot, which is how I know that I'm getting a good, representative sample." In fact, it was a letter from a kindergarten student that prompted perhaps the main theme of his address, political civility. The student asked him, "Are people being nice?"

In his speech, the president briefly quoted Benjamin Franklin at the Constitutional Convention, but he did not mention these Franklin words to it: "For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise." More than most presidents, however, Obama has welcomed diversified views that might challenge his own. Even before picking his vice president, he indicated that he wanted someone who was independent minded and would tell him when he was wrong. In his most recent nomination for a Supreme Court justice, he once again indicated his appreciation for diverse views when he said of his nominee, Elena Kagan, that she built "a reputation for openness to other viewpoints and skill in working with others to build consensus" as dean of Harvard Law School.

Perhaps Obama's decade of teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago heightened his appreciation for the type of humility displayed by Franklin and the other founding fathers. In an interview with U.S. News & World Report in April 2009, historian Richard Beeman was asked about his book Plain, Honest Men: The Making of America's Constitution, and why Obama should read it. Beeman responded, "If one reads this book, one gets a better sense not only of the humility but of the fundamental uncertainty that these guys in the Constitutional Convention had as they went about crafting this government." He also hoped that "he [Obama] would be somewhat humble, just as the founding fathers were, in developing his own views on how the Constitution should be interpreted." And Beeman added: "I think the people, frankly, who are least humble right now are the people like Justice [Antonin] Scalia, who is absolutely emphatic in his view about how the Constitution should be interpreted."

In a chapter entitled "Our Constitution" in The Audacity of Hope Obama wrote: "It's not just absolute power that the founders sought to prevent. Implicit in its structure, in the very idea of ordered liberty, was a rejection of absolute truth, the infallibility of any idea or ideology or theology or ‘ism,' any tyrannical consistency that might lock future generations into a single, unalterable course." Near the end of that same chapter, however, Obama recognized "that it has not always been the pragmatist, the voice of reason, or the force of compromise, that has created the conditions for liberty," but that passionate, and sometimes uncompromising, idealists like William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman also advanced freedom.

In trying to reconcile pragmatic compromise with a passion for justice, Obama wrote "I'm left then with Lincoln, who like no man before or since understood both the deliberative function of our democracy and the limits of such deliberation." Lincoln demonstrated that "we must talk and reach for common understandings, precisely because all of us are imperfect and can never act with the certainty that God is on our side; and yet at times we must act nonetheless, as if we are certain, protected from error only by providence." Obama concluded: "That self-awareness, that humility, led Lincoln to advance his principles through the framework of our democracy, through speeches and debate, through the reasoned arguments that might appeal to the better angels of our nature. It was this same humility that allowed him, once the conversation between North and South broke down and war became inevitable, to resist the temptation to demonize the fathers and sons who did battle on the other side, or to diminish the horror of war, no matter how just it might be."

In asking Michigan graduates (and others) to refrain from demonizing those who differ from them, Obama was suggesting a little Lincoln-like humility. Such humility implies that, like all humans, Obama does not always display the proper mix of passion, empathy, tolerance, and humility. But it's good that he tries—and that he reminds us of such "wisdom-associated values."