Obama's Civic Message at Rutgers University, New Brunswick


President Obama's Commencement Address at Rutgers University -- the first by a sitting U.S. president - included solid civic advice:

  • Have faith in democracy.
  • If you want to change this country for the better, you better start participating.
  • You got to be a citizen full-time, all the time.
  • Gear yourself for the long haul.
  • 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... So get to work.                                                                             

Below is the concluding portion of this historic address - delivered on Sunday May 15, 2016, in Piscataway, near New Brunswick, NJ. 

"Point Four: Have Faith in Democracy"

Point Four: Have faith in democracy.  Look, I know it's not always pretty... 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...

If you want to change this country for the better, you better start participating... 

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...   

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. 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 suffragists 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 of 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... 

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...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 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! 

Excerpts from the concluding portion of President Obama's Commencement Address at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, May 15, 2016, Piscataway.