Obama bemoans polarized politics in Michigan commencement speech

President Barack Obama called for more civil debate in the U.S. during a commencement address Saturday.

Obama, speaking before tens of thousands at the University of Michigan's graduation exercises, condemned "vilification and over-the-top rhetoric" that he said had damaged work toward bipartisanship.

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The president urged graduates to venture outside of their comfort zones and expose themselves to diverse media, giving shout outs to the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh.

But the president again chastised cable news for having fueled a more polarized political environment.

"We’ve got politicians calling each other all sorts of unflattering names.  Pundits and talking heads shout at each other," Obama said. "The media tends to play up every hint of conflict, because it makes for a sexier story – which means anyone interested in getting coverage feels compelled to make the most outrageous comments."

Obama bowed to the anxiety that had been stirred up by the economic downturn, and, in an acknowledgement of critics, noted longstanding debates throughout U.S. history over the role for and size of government. Members of the Tea Party movement, in particular, have focused their anger against Obama for expanding government, through his signature healthcare reform law and other initiatives.

"But what troubles me is when I hear people say that all of government is inherently bad," Obama argued. "For when our government is spoken of as some menacing, threatening foreign entity, it conveniently ignores the fact in our democracy, government is us."

The president said that the way to change that was for citizens to expose themselves to more diverse viewpoints.

"Still, if you’re someone who only reads the editorial page of The New York Times, try glancing at the page of The Wall Street Journal once in awhile.  If you’re a fan of Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, try reading a few columns on the Huffington Post website," Obama said. "It may make your blood boil; your mind may not often be changed. But the practice of listening to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship."


Additionally, Obama drew on historic speeches at Michigan while delivering his own address. He made reference to John F. Kennedy's having laid out plans for the Peace Corps in Ann Arbor while running for president in 1960. Obama also noted President Lyndon Johnson's 1964 commencement address at Michigan, where Johnson laid out his "Great Society" program.