President Barack Obama is apparently itching to hit the campaign trail again, but he can’t officially back Hillary Clinton unless she finally seizes the Democratic nomination for president against Sen. Bernie Sanders.
But Obama has found a way to go after both presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump and the populist uprising of Sen. Bernie Sanders as he makes his way through the commencement speech beat at colleges.
The nature of a commencement speech easily slips into the mold of a presidential campaign. Defy the pessimism of the day, and point optimistically to the future, using the bright futures of college graduates to inspire hope for the country.
At Rutgers, Obama employed a campaign tactic of citing New Jersey native Bruce Springsteen to urge students against slipping into cynicism.
“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,’ he said, reciting the lyrics of the song Badlands. “Don’t let that be you. Don’t waste your time waiting.”
For Obama, that advice applies directly to his own predicament — rather than waste time waiting for the completion of the Democratic primary, he is taking every opportunity to challenge his opponents on the commencement speech beat.
“America is better. The world is better,” he argued on Sunday, insisting to students that “our economy has recovered from crisis stronger than almost any other in the world.”
In New Jersey, Obama focused heavily on Trump’s protectionist message, insisting that “building walls” and “disparaging Muslims” would be un-American.
“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,” he said, alluding to Trump.
The campaign-themed speech was not lost on the students, who shouted “Four more years!” during his speech.
“Can’t do it,” Obama replied as the audience laughed.
Obama continued campaigning by defending his ideas on trade, insisting that higher labor and environmental standards would help Americans survive the devastating effects of globalization.
It was clear that Trump’s runaway political success has made a big impact on the president, who himself once enjoyed the fruits of a political movement fueled by the media. He appeared frustrated by what he described as a “strain of anti-intellectualism” in the 2016 campaign.
“In politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue. It’s not cool to not know what you’re talking about,” he said. “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.”
He suggested that the smartphone generation was only becoming stupider and more gullible.
“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,” he said. “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.”
He complained that thanks to the modern media, politicians like Trump were not properly scrutinized.
“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,” he said.
Obama also hinted that he was not a fan of the campaign run by Bernie Sanders, who repeatedly condemns the “rigged” political and economic system.
“[T]he system isn’t as rigged as you think, and it certainly is not as hopeless as you think,” he said.
During his commencement speech at Howard University a week earlier, Obama criticized “uncompromising” political forces that threatened to “cheat” political progress.
“If you think that the only way forward is to be as uncompromising as possible, you will feel good about yourself, you will enjoy a certain moral purity, but you’re not going to get what you want,” he said. “And if you don’t get what you want long enough, you will eventually think the whole system is rigged.”