Obama Tells Graduates to Keep Democracy Vibrant

May 4, 2010 Updated: May 5, 2010

President Obama said he reads 10 letters per day from the thousands of people who write to the White House, speaking at the University of Michigan Saturday. He said he does it to avoid becoming insular in Washington. He said, “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 his speech he condemned the polarized, demonizing tone public discourse in America has developed. Click HERE to read further, following the slideshow:

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Obama spoke to a crowd of 80,000-85,000 people at the University of Michigan graduation Saturday. Of them, about 8,500 were graduating. Obama said the venom in the public conversation partly comes from the difficult times; the worst economic crisis since the great depression and the spread of global terrorism. Yet the nature of media coverage contributes to the angry atmosphere too, he said. People who want coverage say the most contentious, outrageous things possible because they know conflict attracts viewers.

He said American politics has never been for the thin-skinned. “But I think it’s important that we maintain some historic perspective. Since the days of our founding, American politics has never been a particularly nice business. It’s always been a little less gentle during times of great change. A newspaper of the opposing party once editorialized that if Thomas Jefferson were elected, “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced.” Not subtle.” In an allusion to some of the criticisms against him, he said, "Presidents from Teddy Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson have been accused of promoting socialism, or worse."

But to call someone a fascist, a left wing nut, or a right wing nut makes it impossible to learn from that person, he said. It may also allow some to justify violence against those who have different ideas. The president said that anti-government rhetoric does not make sense to him. "When our government is spoken of as some menacing, threatening, foreign entity, it ignores the fact that in our democracy, government is us.”

Obama asked those present to spend time with people who are different from them. He asked city people to get to know people who grew up in a rural area. Fans of Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh should force themselves to read the Huffington Post, though it might make their blood boil, and lovers of the New York Times editorial page should spend some time with the Wall Street Journal, he said. “The practice of listening to opposing views is essential to effective citizenship. It is essential for our democracy,” he said, “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.”

Pre-med graduate Elitsa Nicolaou was ready to put those ideas in to practice. She said, “I think it was good that he was pushing people to be united to come together despite their differences and be open to other peoples' ideas without being harsh against what they have to say.”

Amanda Nahhas, also a pre-med graduate, agreed. She said, “ I just thought it had a really good theme. Bringing everyone together to fight for a good cause, and I think that's it.”

Bo Peng, who just graduated with a degree in economics, said that he liked, “Mr. Obama’s message of change and do better for the future. It really just helps to put a perspective on things and it really just helps people to realize what we can actually do if we put our minds to it.”

The president challenged the class of 2010: “ How will you keep our democracy going? At a moment when our challenges seem so big and our politics seem so small, how will you keep our democracy alive and vibrant; how will you keep it well in this century?”

Valerie Avore contributed to this article.