President Barack Obama urged graduates of Ohio State University to embrace service and citizenship, challenging the class of 2013 to become active participants in the democratic process.
In his first commencement address this year, Democrat Obama defended the role of government and pushed the graduates to become engaged in issues dominating the political debate as they move into the workforce.
“I will ask you for two things: to participate, and to persevere,” Obama said to an estimated 8,200 students in attendance to receive their degrees from the university in Columbus, Ohio. “After all, your democracy does not function without your active participation.”
Challenges facing the graduates include curbing gun violence, confronting climate change, improving roads and bridges, and boosting early childhood education, the president said. He urged them to find the “political will to harness the ingenuity of your generation, and encourage and inspire the hard work of dedicated citizens.”
The graduating class, the second largest in the university’s history, enters the workforce as the economy recovers from a downturn that pushed the U.S. unemployment rate over 10 percent during part of Obama’s first term.
“You are graduating into an economy and a job market that are steadily healing,” Obama said.
American employers added more workers than forecast in April, sending the unemployment rate down to a four-year low of 7.5 percent and the Dow Jones Industrial Average briefly above 15,000 for the first time. The S&P 500 climbed 2 percent to 1,614.42 for the week, marking the first time the index traded above 1,600.
The recession that came with the 2008 financial crisis, as well as terrorist attacks and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were driving forces in the development of this year’s graduates, Obama said.
“You have been tested and tempered by events that your parents and I never imagined we’d see when we sat where you sit,” Obama said. “And yet, despite all this, or more likely because of it, yours has become a generation possessed with that most American of ideas -- that people who love their country can change it.”
Obama defended the role of government amid criticism from Republicans that the U.S. has stifled economic growth and personal freedom.
“You should reject these voices,” Obama said at Ohio Stadium, the home of the university’s football team. “Because what they suggest is that our brave, creative, unique experiment in self-rule is just a sham with which we can’t be trusted.”
Obama’s speech was the first of three he will give to college graduates this year. He will speak at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, on May 19 and at the May 24 commissioning ceremony at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
Obama said the country’s response to tragedies during the past year, including the superstorm Sandy and the April 15 bombing at the Boston Marathon, has shown “the American spirit at its brightest.”
Still, he called on the graduates to do more.
“I dare you to do better,” Obama said. “I dare you to be better.”