By Steve Brusk, CNN
COLUMBUS, OHIO (CNN) — President Obama told graduates Sunday that “the institutions that give structure to our society have at times betrayed your trust” but called on young people to take a more active role in the political process as part of the solution.
Obama delivered his first commencement address of the spring to nearly 10,000 graduates at The Ohio State University in Columbus. He urged students to reject the “voices” that “incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s the root of our all our problems, even as they do their best to gum up the works.”
On the stage in Ohio Stadium, Obama told the crowd that “your democracy does not function without your active participation. At a bare minimum, that means voting, eagerly and often. It means knowing who’s been elected to make decisions on your behalf, what they believe in and whether or not they deliver.”
His comments came exactly one year after Obama went to the heart of the key battleground state of Ohio to officially kick off his re-election campaign with a rally at The Ohio State University.
On Sunday he called for voters to hold officials accountable, saying, “if they let you down, there’s a built-in day in November where you can really let them know that’s not OK.”
“I’m not going to get partisan, because that’s not what citizenship is about,” the president said. And he invoked the words President George W. Bush used in a graduation address in the same stadium, saying, “America needs more than taxpayers, spectators and occasional voters. America needs full-time citizens.”
But Obama seemed to refer to the congressional defeat of stronger background checks for gun buyers and other parts of his domestic agenda when he told the graduates, “when we abdicate that authority, we grant our silent consent to someone who’ll gladly claim it. That’s how we end up with lobbyists who set the agenda, policies detached from what middle-class families face every day, the well-connected who publicly demand that Washington stay out of their business, then whisper in its ear for special treatment that you don’t get. That’s how a small minority of lawmakers get cover to defeat something the vast majority of their constituents want.”
The president’s remarks came as the administration vowed that the defeat of the background check measure was not the end of the fight. Obama spoke out on the gun issue on his trip to Mexico City last week, and Vice President Joe Biden wrote a Sunday opinion piece in the Houston Chronicle as the National Rifle Association met there.
Obama called on graduates on “harness the ingenuity of your generation” to tackle issues like gun violence, climate change, road and airport repairs and education. “We can always aspire to something more. That doesn’t depend on who you elect to office. It depends upon you as citizens, how big you want to be, and how badly you want it.
“I dare you to do better”, he added, “I dare you to be better. From what I have seen of your generation, I have no doubt you will”.
In his Ohio State speech, Obama said he’s been “obsessed” with the idea of keeping citizenship alive at the national level, “not just on Election Day or in times of tragedy,” because he spends most of his time in Washington, “a place that sorely needs it.”
He told the students “you don’t have to run for office yourself,” later saying, “only you can ultimately break the cycle.”
In lighter moments during the commencement, Obama donned a black hat with an Ohio State O on it. He joked about speaking at archrival University of Michigan graduation in 2010, referring to a “certain university up north.”
To laughs, he said he had been to OSU’s campus five times recently and added, “to be fair, you did let President Ford speak here once, and he played football for Michigan.”
Obama teased students about eating breakfast so late, at 11:30 a.m. when he dropped by a campus eatery during one stop. But he mispronounced the name of Sloopy’s, named for the song that’s an OSU tradition. He asked for forgiveness, noting that it’s a Sunday after a foreign trip. He returned from Costa Rica on Saturday evening.