ANN ARBOR, Mich. – In a blunt caution to political friend and foe, President Barack Obama said Saturday that partisan rants and name-calling under the guise of legitimate discourse pose a serious danger to America’s democracy, and may incite “extreme elements” to violence.
The comments, in a graduation speech at the University of Michigan’s huge football stadium, were Obama’s most direct take about the angry politics that have engulfed his young presidency after long clashes over health care, taxes and the role of government.
Obama drew repeated cheers in Michigan Stadium from a friendly crowd that aides called the biggest audience of his presidency since the inauguration. University officials distributed 80,000 tickets – before they ran out.
In his 31-minute speech, Obama didn’t mention the tea party movement that’s captured headlines with its fierce attacks on his policies. But he took direct aim at the anti-government language so prevalent today.
“What troubles me is when I hear people say that all of government is inherently bad,” Obama said after receiving an honorary doctor of laws degree. “When our government is spoken of as some menacing, threatening foreign entity, it ignores the fact that in our democracy, government is us.”
Government, he said, is the roads we drive on and the speed limits that keep us safe. It’s the men and women in the military, the inspectors in our mines, the pioneering researchers in public universities.
The financial meltdown dramatically showed the dangers of too little government, he said, “when a lack of accountability on Wall Street nearly led to the collapse of our entire economy.”
But Obama was direct in urging both sides in the political debate to tone it down. “Throwing around phrases like ‘socialists’ and ‘Soviet-style takeover,’ ‘fascists’ and ‘right-wing nut’ – that may grab headlines,” he said. But it also “closes the door to the possibility of compromise. It undermines democratic deliberation,” he said.
“At its worst, it can send signals to the most extreme elements of our society that perhaps violence is a justifiable response.”