COLUMBUS — Putting partisan politics aside for the most part, President Obama on Sunday urged Ohio State University's Class of 2013 to set aside self for the greater good, to reject cynicism, and to not be afraid to make the tough decisions ahead.
“From what I have seen of your generation, I have no doubt you will,” he told the 8,200 in robes on the field of Ohio Stadium out of a graduating class of more than 10,000.
He brought his remarks around to current gridlock in Washington, urging the graduates to avoid the temptation to retreat into their own lives, leaving the task of governing to others.
“That’s how a small minority of lawmakers get cover to defeat something the vast majority of their constituents want,” he said, an apparent reference to the recent defeat of a bill subjecting gun purchasers to criminal background checks.
“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, reverse the rise of inequality, repair a deteriorating climate that threatens everything we plan to leave for our kids and grandkids,” he said. “Class of 2013, only you can ultimately break that cycle.”
Mr. Obama, in a black robe, told them the class it was graduating into an economy that is “steadily healing.”
Although Mr. Obama is delivering other commencement speeches this graduation season, this one brought him full circle. Mr. Obama formally launched his re-election campaign exactly one year earlier at nearby Schottenstein Center, counting on the students there to help him carry what was considered a must-win state.
He campaigned on campus four other times over the last 16 months, including an unannounced stop at the Sloopy’s restaurant at the Ohio Union. Only Mr. Obama mistakenly called it “Sloppy’s” in his commencement speech.
“It’s Sunday, and I’m coming off a foreign trip,” he offered as an excuse.
While conceding that Wall Street institutions let the country down, particularly leading into the last deep recession, he echoed his campaign rhetoric as he strongly defended government as a whole.
“Unfortunately, you grew 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 they do their best to gum up the works, or that tyranny always lurks just around the corner,” Mr. Obama said. “You should reject these voices, because what they suggest is that our brave and creative and unique experiment in self-rule is 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. We shouldn’t want to,” he said. “But we don’t think the government is the source of all our problems, either. Because we understand that this democracy is ours. As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but absolutely necessary work of self-government.”
Ohio State’s graduating class of 10,143 was the second-largest in university history, roughly 500 shy of last year’s record class.
Mr. Obama became the third sitting president to speak at an Ohio State commencement, following George W. Bush in 2002 and Gerald Ford in 1974. Former President Bill Clinton spoke there in 2007. The university gave the President an honorary doctorate of laws degree, and Mr. Obama donned an Ohio State cap when accepting the diploma.
Famed photographer Annie Leibovitz was also among those receiving honorary diplomas.
Austin Meehl, of Lynnfield, Mass., earned his bachelor’s degree in philosophy with a minor in chemistry. He hopes to go to medical school.
“Regardless of your political views, it’s still really exciting to have the President,” he said. “I was happy that he kept it light.”
Louise Weiner, of Powell, Ohio, had two graduates in the crowd. Her son David, 23, was handed his bachelor’s diploma in psychology and economics while his sister, Jennifer, 27, received her master’s in science and nursing. “To have the current President makes it so exciting,” Mrs. Weiner said.
Her third child, Jeff, 29, is about to graduate with a medical degree from the University of Toledo Medical Center, the former Medical College of Ohio. He never saw Mr. Obama when he visited Toledo. But he was on hand to see the President and his two siblings receive degrees on Sunday.
He voted for Mr. Obama twice, the first time largely because of the President’s pledge for universal health coverage. He voted for him a second time, a little less enamored with the final result of that campaign promise. “Having everyone insured is a step in the right direction,” he said. “It’s not a perfect solution.”
Contact Jim Provance at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 614-221-0496.