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The President: Hello Rutgers!
R-U rah-rah!
Thank you so much.
Thank you.
Everybody, please have a seat.
Thank you, President Barchi, for that introduction.
Let me congratulate my extraordinarily worthy
fellow honorary Scarlet Knights, Dr. Burnell
and Bill Moyers.
Matthew, good job.
If you are interested, we can talk after this.
One of the perks of my job is honorary degrees.
But I have to tell you, it impresses nobody in my house.
Now Malia and Sasha just say, "Okay, Dr. Dad, we'll
see you later.
Can we have some money?"
To the Board of Governors; to Chairman Brown; to
Lieutenant Governor Guadagno; Mayor Cahill;
Mayor Wahler, members of Congress, Rutgers
administrators, faculty, staff, friends, and family
-- thank you for the honor of joining you for the 250th
anniversary of this remarkable institution.
But most of all, congratulations
to the Class of 2016!
I come here for a simple reason -- to finally settle
this pork roll vs.
Taylor ham question.
(laughter and applause)
I'm just kidding.
There's not much I'm afraid to take on in my final year
of office, but I know better than to get in the middle
of that debate.
The truth is, Rutgers, I came here because you asked.
Now, it's true that a lot of schools invite me to their
commencement every year.
But you are the first to launch a three-year campaign.
Emails, letters, tweets, YouTube videos.
I even got three notes from the grandmother of your
student body president.
And I have to say that really sealed the deal.
That was smart, because I have a soft spot for grandmas.
So I'm here, off Exit 9, on the banks of the Old Raritan --
-- at the site of one of the original
nine colonial colleges.
Winners of the first-ever college football game.
One of the newest members of the Big Ten.
Home of what I understand to be a Grease Truck
for a Fat Sandwich.
Mozzarella sticks and chicken fingers
on your cheesesteaks --
I'm sure Michelle would approve.
But somehow, you have survived
such death-defying acts.
You also survived the daily jockeying for buses, from
Livingston to Busch, to Cook, to Douglass,
and back again.
I suspect that a few of you are trying to survive this
afternoon, after a late night at Olde Queens.
You know who you are.
But, however you got here, you made it.
You made it.
Today, you join a long line of Scarlet Knights whose
energy and intellect have lifted this university to
heights its founders could not have imagined.
Two hundred and fifty years ago, when America was still
just an idea, a charter from the Royal Governor -- Ben
Franklin's son -- established Queen's College.
A few years later, a handful of students gathered in a
converted tavern for the first class.
And from that first class in a pub, Rutgers has evolved
into one of the finest research institutions
in America.
This is a place where you 3D-print prosthetic hands
for children, and devise rooftop wind arrays that can
power entire office buildings with clean,
renewable energy.
Every day, tens of thousands of students come here, to
this intellectual melting pot, where ideas and
cultures flow together among what might just be America's
most diverse student body.
Here in New Brunswick, you can debate philosophy with a
classmate from South Asia in one class, and then strike
up a conversation on the EE Bus with a first-generation
Latina student from Jersey City, before sitting down
for your psych group project with a veteran who's going
to school on the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
America converges here.
And in so many ways, the history of Rutgers mirrors
the evolution of America -- the course by which we
became bigger, stronger, and richer and more dynamic, and
a more inclusive nation.
But America's progress has never been smooth or steady.
Progress doesn't travel in a straight line.
It zigs and zags in fits and starts.
Progress in America has been hard and contentious, and
sometimes bloody.
It remains uneven and at times, for every two steps
forward, it feels like we take one step back.
Now, for some of you, this may sound
like your college career.
It sounds like mine, anyway.
Which makes sense, because measured against the whole
of human history, America remains a very young nation
-- younger, even, than this university.
But progress is bumpy.
It always has been.
But because of dreamers and innovators and strivers and
activists, progress has been this nation's hallmark.
I'm fond of quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,
who said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but
it bends towards justice."
It bends towards justice.
I believe that.
But I also believe that the arc of our nation, the arc
of the world does not bend towards justice, or freedom,
or equality, or prosperity on its own.
It depends on us, on the choices we make,
particularly at certain inflection points in
history; particularly when big changes are happening
and everything seems up for grabs.
And, Class of 2016, you are graduating at such an
inflection point.
Since the start of this new millennium, you've already
witnessed horrific terrorist attacks, and war,
and a Great Recession.
You've seen economic and technological and cultural
shifts that are profoundly altering how we work and how
we communicate, how we live, how we form families.
The pace of change is not subsiding;
it is accelerating.
And these changes offer not only great opportunity, but
also great peril.
Fortunately, your generation has everything it takes to
lead this country toward a brighter future.
I'm confident that you can make the right choices --
away from fear and division and paralysis, and toward
cooperation and innovation and hope.
Now, partly, I'm confident because, on average, you're
smarter and better educated than my generation --
although we probably had better penmanship --
-- and were certainly better spellers.
We did not have spell-check back in my day.
You're not only better educated, you've been more
exposed to the world, more exposed to other cultures.
You're more diverse.
You're more environmentally conscious.
You have a healthy skepticism
for conventional wisdom.
So you've got the tools to lead us.
And precisely because I have so much confidence in you,
I'm not going to spend the remainder of my time telling
you exactly how you're going to make the world better.
You'll figure it out.
You'll look at things with fresher eyes, unencumbered
by the biases and blind spots and inertia and
general crankiness of your parents and grandparents and
old heads like me.
But I do have a couple of suggestions that you may
find useful as you go out there and conquer the world.
Point number one: When you hear someone longing for the
"good old days," take it with a grain of salt.
(laughter and applause)
Take it with a grain of salt.
We live in a great nation and we are rightly
proud of our history.
We are beneficiaries of the labor and the grit and the
courage of generations who came before.
But I guess it's part of human nature, especially in
times of change and uncertainty, to want to look
backwards and long for some imaginary past when
everything worked, and the economy hummed, and all
politicians were wise, and every kid was well-mannered,
and America pretty much did whatever it wanted
around the world.
Guess what.
It ain't so.
The "good old days" weren't that great.
Yes, there have been some stretches in our history
where the economy grew much faster, or when government
ran more smoothly.
There were moments when, immediately after World War
II, for example, or the end of the Cold War, when the
world bent more easily to our will.
But those are sporadic, those moments, those episodes.
In fact, by almost every measure, America is better,
and the world is better, than it was 50 years ago, or
30 years ago, or even eight years ago.
And by the way, I'm not -- set aside 150 years ago,
pre-Civil War -- there's a whole bunch of stuff there
we could talk about.
Set aside life in the '50s, when women and people of
color were systematically excluded from big chunks
of American life.
Since I graduated, in 1983 -- which isn't that long ago --
-- I'm just saying.
Since I graduated, crime rates, teenage pregnancy,
the share of Americans living in poverty
-- they're all down.
The share of Americans with college educations
have gone way up.
Our life expectancy has, as well.
Blacks and Latinos have risen up the ranks in
business and politics.
More women are in the workforce.
They're earning more money -- although it's long past
time that we passed laws to make sure that women are
getting the same pay for the same work as men.
Meanwhile, in the eight years since most of you
started high school, we're also better off.
You and your fellow graduates are entering the
job market with better prospects than
any time since 2007.
Twenty million more Americans know the financial
security of health insurance.
We're less dependent on foreign oil.
We've doubled the production of clean energy.
We have cut the high school dropout rate.
We've cut the deficit by two-thirds.
Marriage equality is the law of the land.
And just as America is better, the world is better
than when I graduated.
Since I graduated, an Iron Curtain fell,
apartheid ended.
There's more democracy.
We virtually eliminated certain diseases like polio.
We've cut extreme poverty drastically.
We've cut infant mortality by an enormous amount.
Now, I say all these things not to make you complacent.
We've got a bunch of big problems to solve.
But I say it to point out that change has been a
constant in our history.
And the reason America is better is because we didn't
look backwards we didn't fear the future.
We seized the future and made it our own.
And that's exactly why it's always been young people
like you that have brought about big change -- because
you don't fear the future.
That leads me to my second point: The world is more
interconnected than ever before, and it's becoming
more connected every day.
Building walls won't change that.
Look, as President, my first responsibility is always the
security and prosperity of the United States.
And as citizens, we all rightly put our country first.
But if the past two decades have taught us anything,
it's that the biggest challenges we face cannot
be solved in isolation.
When overseas states start falling apart, they become
breeding grounds for terrorists and ideologies of
nihilism and despair that ultimately can reach our shores.
When developing countries don't have functioning
health systems, epidemics like Zika or Ebola can
spread and threaten Americans, too.
And a wall won't stop that.
If we want to close loopholes that allow large
corporations and wealthy individuals to avoid paying
their fair share of taxes, we've got to have the
cooperation of other countries in a global
financial system to help enforce financial laws.
The point is, to help ourselves we've got
to help others --
-- not pull up the drawbridge and try to keep
the world out.
And engagement does not just mean deploying our military.
There are times where we must take military action to
protect ourselves and our allies, and we are in awe of
and we are grateful for the men and women who make up
the finest fighting force the world has ever known.
But I worry if we think that the entire burden of our
engagement with the world is up to the 1 percent who
serve in our military, and the rest of us can just sit
back and do nothing.
They can't shoulder the entire burden.
And engagement means using all the levers of our
national power, and rallying the world to take on our
shared challenges.
You look at something like trade, for example.
We live in an age of global supply chains, and cargo
ships that crisscross oceans, and online commerce
that can render borders obsolete.
And a lot of folks have legitimate concerns with the
way globalization has progressed -- that's one of
the changes that's been taking place -- jobs shipped
overseas, trade deals that sometimes put workers and
businesses at a disadvantage.
But the answer isn't to stop trading with other
In this global economy, that's not even possible.
The answer is to do trade the right way, by
negotiating with other countries so that they raise
their labor standards and their environmental
standards; and we make sure they don't impose unfair
tariffs on American goods or steal American
intellectual property.
That's how we make sure that international rules are
consistent with our values -- including human rights.
And ultimately, that's how we help raise wages
here in America.
That's how we help our workers compete
on a level playing field.
Building walls won't do that.
It won't boost our economy, and it won't enhance our
security either.
Isolating or disparaging Muslims, suggesting that
they should be treated differently when it comes to
entering this country --
-- that is not just a betrayal of our values --
-- that's not just a betrayal of who we are, it
would alienate the very communities at home and
abroad who are our most important partners in the
fight against violent extremism.
Suggesting that we can build an endless wall along our
borders, and blame our challenges on immigrants --
that doesn't just run counter to our history as
the world's melting pot; it contradicts the evidence
that our growth and our innovation and our dynamism
has always been spurred by our ability to attract
strivers from every corner of the globe.
That's how we became America.
Why would we want to stop it now?
Audience Member: Four more years!
The President: Can't do it.
Which brings me to my third point: Facts, evidence,
reason, logic, an understanding of science --
these are good things.
These are qualities you want in people making policy.
These are qualities you want to continue to cultivate in
yourselves as citizens.
That might seem obvious.
That's why we honor Bill Moyers or Dr. Burnell.
We traditionally have valued those things.
But if you were listening to today's political debate,
you might wonder where this strain of
anti-intellectualism came from.
So, Class of 2016, let me be as clear as I can be.
In politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue.
It's not cool to not know what you're talking about.
That's not keeping it real, or telling it like it is.
That's not challenging political correctness.
That's just not knowing what you're talking about.
And yet, we've become confused about this.
Look, our nation's Founders -- Franklin, Madison,
Hamilton, Jefferson -- they were
born of the Enlightenment.
They sought to escape superstition, and
sectarianism, and tribalism, and no-nothingness.
They believed in rational thought and experimentation,
and the capacity of informed citizens to master
our own fates.
That is embedded in our constitutional design.
That spirit informed our inventors and our explorers,
the Edisons and the Wright Brothers, and the George
Washington Carvers and the Grace Hoppers, and the
Norman Borlaugs and the Steve Jobses.
That's what built this country.
And today, in every phone in one of your pockets --
-- we have access to more information than at any time
in human history, at a touch of a button.
But, ironically, the flood of information hasn't made
us more discerning of the truth.
In some ways, it's just made us more confident
in our ignorance.
We assume whatever is on the web must be true.
We search for sites that just reinforce
our own predispositions.
Opinions masquerade as facts.
The wildest conspiracy theories are taken for gospel.
Now, understand, I am sure you've learned during your
years of college -- and if not, you will learn soon --
that there are a whole lot of folks who are book smart
and have no common sense.
That's the truth.
You'll meet them if you haven't already.
So the fact that they've got a fancy degree -- you got to
talk to them to see whether they know
what they're talking about.
Qualities like kindness and compassion, honesty, hard
work -- they often matter more than
technical skills or know-how.
But when our leaders express a disdain for facts, when
they're not held accountable for repeating falsehoods and
just making stuff up, while actual experts are dismissed
as elitists, then we've got a problem.
You know, it's interesting that if we get sick, we
actually want to make sure the doctors have gone to
medical school, they know what they're talking about.
If we get on a plane, we say we really want a pilot to be
able to pilot the plane.
And yet, in our public lives, we certainly think,
"I don't want somebody who's done it before."
(laughter and applause)
The rejection of facts, the rejection of reason and
science -- that is the path to decline.
It calls to mind the words of Carl Sagan, who graduated
high school here in New Jersey --
-- he said: "We can judge our progress by the courage
of our questions and the depths of our answers, our
willingness to embrace what is true rather than what
feels good."
The debate around climate change is a
perfect example of this.
Now, I recognize it doesn't feel like the planet is
warmer right now.
I understand.
There was hail when I landed in Newark.
But think about the climate change issue.
Every day, there are officials in high office
with responsibilities who mock the overwhelming
consensus of the world's scientists that human
activities and the release of carbon dioxide and
methane and other substances are altering our climate in
profound and dangerous ways.
A while back, you may have seen a United States senator
trotted out a snowball during a floor speech in the
middle of winter as "proof" that the world
was not warming.
I mean, listen, climate change is not something
subject to political spin.
There is evidence.
There are facts.
We can see it happening right now.
If we don't act, if we don't follow through on the
progress we made in Paris, the progress we've been
making here at home, your generation will feel the
brunt of this catastrophe.
So it's up to you to insist upon and shape
an informed debate.
Imagine if Benjamin Franklin had seen that senator with
the snowball, what he would think.
Imagine if your 5th grade science teacher had seen that.
He'd get a D.
And he's a senator!
Look, I'm not suggesting that cold analysis and hard
data are ultimately more important in life than
passion, or faith, or love, or loyalty.
I am suggesting that those highest expressions of our
humanity can only flourish when our economy functions
well, and proposed budgets add up, and our environment
is protected.
And to accomplish those things, to make collective
decisions on behalf of a common good,
we have to use our heads.
We have to agree that facts and evidence matter.
And we got to hold our leaders and ourselves
accountable to know what the heck they're talking about.
All right.
I only have two more points.
I know it's getting cold and you guys have to graduate.
Point four: Have faith in democracy.
Look, I know it's not always pretty.
Really, I know.
I've been living it.
But it's how, bit by bit, generation by generation, we
have made progress in this nation.
That's how we banned child labor.
That's how we cleaned up our air and our water.
That's how we passed programs like Social
Security and Medicare that lifted millions of seniors
out of poverty.
None of these changes happened overnight.
They didn't happen because some charismatic leader got
everybody suddenly to agree on everything.
It didn't happen because some massive political
revolution occurred.
It actually happened over the course of years of
advocacy, and organizing, and alliance-building, and
deal-making, and the changing of public opinion.
It happened because ordinary Americans who cared
participated in the political process.
Audience Member: Because of you!
The President: Well, that's nice.
I mean, I helped, but --
Look, if you want to change this country for the better,
you better start participating.
I'll give you an example on a lot of people's minds
right now -- and that's the growing inequality
in our economy.
Over much of the last century, we've unleashed the
strongest economic engine the world has ever seen, but
over the past few decades, our economy has become more
and more unequal.
The top 10 percent of earners now take in half of
all income in the U.S.
In the past, it used to be a top CEO made 20 or 30 times
the income of the average worker.
Today, it's 300 times more.
And wages aren't rising fast enough for millions of
hardworking families.
Now, if we want to reverse those trends, there are a
bunch of policies that would make a real difference.
We can raise the minimum wage.
We can modernize our infrastructure.
We can invest in early childhood education.
We can make college more affordable.
We can close tax loopholes on hedge fund managers and
take that money and give tax breaks to help families with
child care or retirement.
And if we did these things, then we'd help to restore
the sense that hard work is rewarded and we could build
an economy that truly works for everybody.
Now, the reason some of these things have not
happened, even though the majority of people approve
of them, is really simple.
It's not because I wasn't proposing them.
It wasn't because the facts and the evidence showed they
wouldn't work.
It was because a huge chunk of Americans, especially
young people, do not vote.
In 2014, voter turnout was the lowest since World War II.
Fewer than one in five young people showed up to vote
-- 2014.
And the four who stayed home determined the course of
this country just as much as the single one who voted.
Because apathy has consequences.
It determines who our Congress is.
It determines what policies they prioritize.
It even, for example, determines whether a really
highly qualified Supreme Court nominee receives the
courtesy of a hearing and a vote
in the United States Senate.
And, yes, big money in politics is a huge problem.
We've got to reduce its influence.
Yes, special interests and lobbyists have
disproportionate access to the corridors of power.
But, contrary to what we hear sometimes from both the
left as well as the right, the system isn't as rigged
as you think, and it certainly is not as hopeless
as you think.
Politicians care about being elected, and they especially
care about being reelected.
And if you vote and you elect a majority that
represents your views, you will get what you want.
And if you opt out, or stop paying attention, you won't.
It's that simple.
It's not that complicated.
Now, one of the reasons that people don't vote is because
they don't see the changes they were looking
for right away.
Well, guess what -- none of the great strides in our
history happened right away.
It took Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP decades
to win Brown v. Board of Education;
and then another decade after that to
secure the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.
And it took more time after that for it
to start working.
It took a proud daughter of New Jersey, Alice Paul,
years of organizing marches and hunger strikes and
protests, and drafting hundreds of pieces of
legislation, and writing letters and giving speeches,
and working with congressional leaders before
she and other suffragettes finally helped win women the
right to vote.
Each stage along the way required compromise.
Sometimes you took half a loaf.
You forged allies.
Sometimes you lost on an issue, and then you came
back to fight another day.
That's how democracy works.
So you've got to be committed to participating
not just if you get immediate gratification, but
you got to be a citizen full-time, all the time.
And if participation means voting, and it means
compromise, and organizing and advocacy, it also means
listening to those who don't agree with you.
I know a couple years ago, folks on this campus got
upset that Condoleezza Rice was supposed to speak
at a commencement.
Now, I don't think it's a secret that I disagree with
many of the foreign policies of Dr. Rice
and the previous administration.
But the notion that this community or the country
would be better served by not hearing from a former
Secretary of State, or shutting out what she had to
say -- I believe that's misguided.
I don't think that's how democracy works best, when
we're not even willing to listen to each other.
I believe that's misguided.
If you disagree with somebody, bring them in --
-- and ask them tough questions.
Hold their feet to the fire.
Make them defend their positions.
If somebody has got a bad or offensive idea,
prove it wrong.
Engage it.
Debate it.
Stand up for what you believe in.
Don't be scared to take somebody on.
Don't feel like you got to shut your ears off because
you're too fragile and somebody might
offend your sensibilities.
Go at them if they're not making any sense.
Use your logic and reason and words.
And by doing so, you'll strengthen your own
position, and you'll hone your arguments.
And maybe you'll learn something and realize you
don't know everything.
And you may have a new understanding not only about
what your opponents believe but maybe what you believe.
Either way, you win.
And more importantly, our democracy wins.
So, anyway, all right.
That's it, Class of 2016 --
-- a few suggestions on how you can change the world.
Except maybe I've got one last suggestion.
Just one.
And that is, gear yourself for the long haul.
Whatever path you choose -- business, nonprofits,
government, education, health care, the arts --
whatever it is, you're going to have some setbacks.
You will deal occasionally with foolish people.
You will be frustrated.
You'll have a boss that's not great.
You won't always get everything you want -- at
least not as fast as you want it.
So you have to stick with it.
You have to be persistent.
And success, however small, however incomplete, success
is still success.
I always tell my daughters, you know, better is good.
It may not be perfect, it may not be great, but it's good.
That's how progress happens -- in societies
and in our own lives.
So don't lose hope if sometimes you hit a roadblock.
Don't lose hope in the face of naysayers.
And certainly don't let resistance make you cynical.
Cynicism is so easy, and cynics don't accomplish much.
As a friend of mine who happens to be from
New Jersey, a guy named Bruce Springsteen, once sang --
-- "they spend their lives waiting for a moment that
just don't come."
Don't let that be you.
Don't waste your time waiting.
If you doubt you can make a difference, look at the
impact some of your fellow graduates are already making.
Look at what Matthew is doing.
Look at somebody like Yasmin Ramadan, who began
organizing anti-bullying assemblies when she was 10
years old to help kids handle bias and
discrimination, and here at Rutgers, helped found the
Muslim Public Relations Council to work with
administrators and police to promote inclusion.
Look at somebody like Madison Little, who grew up
dealing with some health issues, and started
wondering what his care would have been like if he
lived someplace else, and so, here at Rutgers, he took
charge of a student nonprofit and worked with
folks in Australia and Cambodia and Uganda to
address the AIDS epidemic.
"Our generation has so much energy to adapt and impact
the world," he said.
"My peers give me a lot of hope that we'll overcome
the obstacles we face in society."
That's you!
Is it any wonder that I am optimistic?
Throughout our history, a new generation of Americans
has reached up and bent the arc of history in the
direction of more freedom, and more opportunity, and
more justice.
And, Class of 2016, it is your turn now --
-- to shape our nation's destiny, as well as your own.
So get to work.
Make sure the next 250 years are better than the last.
Good luck.
God bless you.
God bless this country we love.
Thank you.
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President Obama Delivers the Rutgers University Commencement Address

2050 Folder Collection
CHRISTY published on May 28, 2016
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