Obama defends priorities, makes plea for civility

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By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 2, 2010

ANN ARBOR, MICH. -- Reflecting on 15 months as the leader of a polarized nation, President Obama delivered a spirited defense of government Saturday and issued a call for civility in a direct rebuttal to Republicans and "tea party" activists who have attacked his politics and priorities.

Obama called for greater tolerance in a "poisonous political climate." He criticized both ends of the political spectrum for using words such as "socialist," "fascist" and "Soviet-style takeover" and lamented that such thinking has begun "to creep into the center of our discourse."

"This kind of vilification and over-the-top rhetoric closes the door to the possibility of compromise," Obama told an audience of 92,000 at the University of Michigan commencement. "It prevents learning -- since after all, why should we listen to a 'fascist' or a 'socialist' or a 'right-wing nut' or a 'left-wing nut?' "

Obama's strong words appeared to reflect his frustration with politics in Washington and his desire to redefine the national debate in time to help Democrats avoid a widely forecast pummeling in November's midterm elections.

The White House has watched, despairingly at times, as tea party activists and top Republicans have stirred a pot of anti-tax, anti-government anger. They have labeled Obama a spendthrift who practices the partisanship he says he abhors and whose policies intrude on individual liberty. At rallies across the country, protesters routinely question his patriotism and say they want to "take back" their country.

On Saturday, Obama responded, defending the philosophy that drives his presidency while criticizing arguments that have animated his opponents on Capitol Hill and on the airwaves. The speech included little of the wishing-of-godspeed to graduates that is typical of a commencement address.

"What troubles me is when I hear people say that all of government is inherently bad," Obama told a crowd gathered under cloudy skies. "For when our government is spoken of as some menacing, threatening foreign entity, it ignores the fact that in our democracy, government is us."

After the speech, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) accused Obama of hypocrisy, while Judson Phillips, a founder of Tea Party Nation, said Obama's followers should be the ones to heed his words.

"We're seeing a lot of incivility from the other side, people referring to us as tea-baggers and racists, people who lie about us," Phillips said. "I'd be interested in the president telling those people to be civil."

The audience here repeatedly interrupted Obama with applause and gave him a standing ovation at the end of his speech.

Hours before he was to speak at the annual White House correspondents' dinner, Obama chastised the media for a tendency "to play up every hint of conflict, because it makes for a sexier story." The result, he said, is that aspiring newsmakers "make their arguments as outrageous and as incendiary as possible."

Obama made clear that he was talking about verbal bomb throwers on the left as well as the right. He said politicians are "calling each other all sorts of unflattering names" and "pundits and talking heads shout at each other."


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