ANN ARBOR, Mich. — President Obama on Saturday directly confronted the sharpening political rancor in Washington, on the airwaves and on the Internet, telling the graduating class at the University of Michigan that the country needs a “basic level of civility in our public discourse.”
As a panoply of protesters shouted outside, many of them carrying signs decrying Mr. Obama as a “socialist,” the president told some 8,500 graduates —and 80,000 family members, professors and others in the audience in Michigan Stadium — that passions were overheated and that people on all sides of the political debate needed to find ways to listen to one another.
“Throwing around phrases like ‘socialist’ and ‘Soviet-style takeover,’ ‘fascist’ and ‘right-wing nut’ may grab headlines, but it also has the effect of comparing our government, or our political opponents, to authoritarian and even murderous regimes,” Mr. Obama said. Such rhetoric, he said, closes the door to political compromise.
Clad in a black robe, the president, who received an honorary doctor of law degree from the university, at times struck impassioned tones, giving a defense of government intervention at times of crisis.
“Governments make sure that oil spills are cleaned up by the companies that cause them,” Mr. Obama said in a reference to the BP oil spill that is threatening a vast part of the Gulf of Mexico. The White House said Mr. Obama would travel to the region on Sunday with a “small footprint” to avoid getting in the way of cleanup efforts.
The mostly friendly crowd inside the stadium was the largest that Mr. Obama has addressed since his inauguration. He urged the graduates to engage with people from different backgrounds and different experiences, and with opposing points of views.
“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,” he said. “If you’re a fan of Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, try reading a few columns on the Huffington Post Web site.” Mr. Obama has followed his own advice, a White House spokesman said afterward, and tunes in to his critics on the cable television channels, particularly when he has time during travel on Air Force One.
“It may make your blood boil,” the president said. “Your mind may not often be changed. But the practice of listening to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship.”
For Mr. Obama, whose presidency has, for more than a year, been the object of both adulation from supporters and vilification from critics, the speech harked back to his campaign days, where he sought to portray himself as a unifier.
It also showcased the president in his professorial role, as he offered a short discourse about the history of American political fighting, complete with references to how his predecessors got roughed up. “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,’ ” Mr. Obama said, to laughs from the crowd. “Not subtle.”
He said he had decided to talk about civility in American politics after a kindergarten class wrote to him, with each student asking a question. That anecdote gave Mr. Obama the opportunity to drop a reference to Abraham Lincoln, since one student asked him if he wore a black jacket or if he had a beard. “So clearly they were getting me mixed up with the other tall guy from Illinois,” Mr. Obama joked.
“But it was the last question in the letter that gave me pause,” he said.
“The student asked, ‘Are people being nice?’"
Too bad the people who need to hear this will never listen.