President Obama Delivers the Rutgers University Commencement Address


The President:
Hello Rutgers! (applause) R-U rah-rah! (applause) 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. (applause) If you are interested,
we can talk after this. (applause) One of the perks of my
job is honorary degrees. (laughter) But I have to tell you,
it impresses nobody in my house. (laughter) Now Malia and Sasha just
say, “Okay, Dr. Dad, we’ll see you later. Can we have some money?” (laughter) 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. (applause) But most of all,
congratulations to the Class of 2016! (applause) I come here for a simple
reason — to finally settle this pork roll vs. Taylor ham question. (laughter and applause) I’m just kidding. (laughter) 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. (laughter) The truth is, Rutgers, I
came here because you asked. (applause) 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. (laughter) Emails, letters,
tweets, YouTube videos. I even got three notes from
the grandmother of your student body president. (laughter) And I have to say that
really sealed the deal. That was smart, because
I have a soft spot for grandmas. (laughter) So I’m here, off Exit 9, on
the banks of the Old Raritan — (applause) — at the site of one of
the original nine colonial colleges. (applause) Winners of the first-ever
college football game. (applause) One of the newest
members of the Big Ten. (applause) Home of what I understand to
be a Grease Truck for a Fat Sandwich. (applause) Mozzarella sticks and
chicken fingers on your cheesesteaks — (applause) I’m sure Michelle
would approve. (laughter) But somehow, you have
survived such death-defying acts. (laughter) You also survived the daily
jockeying for buses, from Livingston to Busch, to
Cook, to Douglass, and back again. (applause) I suspect that a few of you
are trying to survive this afternoon, after a late
night at Olde Queens. (applause) You know who you are. (laughter) 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. (applause) 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. (applause) 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. (applause) 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. (laughter) It sounds like mine, anyway. (laughter) 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.” (applause) 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. (applause) Now, partly, I’m confident
because, on average, you’re smarter and better educated
than my generation — although we probably had
better penmanship — (laughter) — 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. (laughter) 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. (applause) 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 — (laughter) — 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. (applause) More women are
in the workforce. (applause) 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. (applause) 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. (applause) 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. (applause) 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. (applause) 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. (applause) 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. (applause) 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 — (applause) — not pull up the
drawbridge and try to keep the world out. (applause) 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. (applause) 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 countries. 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. (applause) 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 — (applause) — that is not just a
betrayal of our values — (applause) — 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? (applause) Audience Member:
Four more years! The President: Can’t do it. (laughter) Which brings me to my third
point: Facts, evidence, reason, logic, an
understanding of science — these are good things. (applause) These are qualities you want
in people making policy. These are qualities you want
to continue to cultivate in yourselves as citizens. (applause) That might seem obvious. (laughter) 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. (applause) So, Class of 2016, let me
be as clear as I can be. In politics and in life,
ignorance is not a virtue. (applause) It’s not cool to not know
what you’re talking about. (applause) That’s not keeping it real,
or telling it like it is. (laughter) That’s not challenging
political correctness. That’s just not knowing
what you’re talking about. (applause) 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. (applause) 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 — (laughter) — 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. (applause) 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. (applause) That’s the truth. You’ll meet them if
you haven’t already. (laughter) 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. (laughter) Qualities like kindness and
compassion, honesty, hard work — they often matter
more than technical skills or know-how. (applause) 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. (applause) 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. (applause) If we get on a plane, we say
we really want a pilot to be able to pilot the plane. (laughter) 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 — (applause) — 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. (laughter) I understand. There was hail when
I landed in Newark. (laughter) 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. (laughter) 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. (applause) 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. (laughter) He’d get a D. (laughter) And he’s a senator! (laughter) 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. (applause) All right. I only have two more points. I know it’s getting cold and
you guys have to graduate. (laughter) Point four: Have
faith in democracy. Look, I know it’s
not always pretty. Really, I know. (laughter) 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. (applause) 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! (applause) The President:
Well, that’s nice. I mean, I helped, but — (applause) 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. (applause) We can modernize
our infrastructure. We can invest in early
childhood education. We can make college
more affordable. (applause) 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. (applause) 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. (applause) 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. (applause) 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. (applause) 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. (applause) 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. (applause) I don’t think that’s how
democracy works best, when we’re not even willing
to listen to each other. (applause) I believe that’s misguided. If you disagree with
somebody, bring them in — (applause) — and ask them
tough questions. Hold their feet to the fire. Make them defend
their positions. (applause) If somebody has got a bad
or offensive idea, prove it wrong. Engage it. Debate it. Stand up for what
you believe in. (applause) 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. (applause) So, anyway, all right. That’s it, Class of 2016 — (laughter) — a few suggestions on how
you can change the world. Except maybe I’ve got
one last suggestion. (applause) 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 — (applause) — “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. (applause) 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 — (applause) — 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. (applause) Good luck. God bless you. God bless this
country we love. Thank you. (applause)

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