By MARSHA MERCER
President Barack Obama isn’t on the ballot, but he is on the campaign trail. His harshest attack yet on Donald J. Trump previewed the president’s role in the fall campaign.
“In politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue,” Obama said May 15 in his commencement address at Rutgers University. “It’s not cool to not know what you’re talking about. 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.”
The partisan campaign pitch by a president is unusual – what isn’t this election cycle? -- but Obama isn’t the first to take center stage at graduation exercises and throw down a political or policy gauntlet.
As war raged in Europe in 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt used a commencement address at the University of Virginia, where his son, Franklin Jr., was graduating from the law school, to warn the United States could no longer be “a lone island in a world dominated by the philosophy of force.”
Italy had declared war on France and Great Britain just that morning, and FDR said:
“On this tenth day of June 1940, the hand that held the dagger has struck it into the back of its neighbor.
“On this tenth day of June 1940, in this university founded by the first great American teacher of democracy, we send forth our prayers and our hopes to those beyond the seas who are maintaining with magnificent valor their battle for freedom,” he said.
The speech, received with cheers and rebel yells in Charlottesville, presaged the United States’ eventual entry into World War II. With the election only months away and Roosevelt was running for a third term, though, some Democrats worried FDR would alienate voters.
In a commencement address at the University of Michigan in May 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson set the theme for his presidential campaign and his domestic agenda when he outlined his goals for a Great Society. His ambitious plan called for no less than rebuilding cities, cleaning up the environment and transforming education.
Twenty-seven years later, President George H. W. Bush chose commencement in Ann Arbor to open his reelection bid, saying Johnson’s social agenda had not only failed but backfired.
“Programs designed to ensure racial harmony generated animosity. Programs intended to help people out of poverty invited dependency,” Bush said in May 1991.
“We don’t need another Great Society with huge and ambitious programs administered by the incumbent few. We need a Good Society built upon the deeds of the many, a society that promotes service, selflessness and action,” Bush said.
Obama renewed the debate about the scope of government and the level of political discourse in a commencement speech at the University of Michigan in 2011.
“What troubles me is when I hear people say that all of government is inherently bad,” he said.
“We’ve got politicians calling each other all sorts of unflattering names. Pundits and talking heads shout at each other. The media tends to play up every hint of conflict because it makes for a sexier story – which means anyone interested in getting coverage feels compelled to make their arguments as outrageous and as incendiary as possible,” Obama said.
Trash-talking about government has only gotten worse, and Trump’s candidacy five years later makes Obama seem prescient. Trumpians endorse the isolationist tendencies FDR rued so long ago.
In his Rutgers speech, Obama said, “If the past two decades have taught us anything, it’s that the biggest challenges we face cannot be solved in isolation.”
He scorned the ideas of building a wall to keep out Mexicans and banning Muslims from entering the country as “not just a betrayal of our values” but as actions that “would alienate the very communities at home and abroad who are our most important partners in the fight against violent extremism.”
In reply, Trump typically fired a quick, personal hit.
“`In politics, and in life, ignorance is not a virtue.’ This is a primary reason that President Obama is the worst president in U.S. history,” he tweeted.
Obama will have many chances over the next six months to use the bully pulpit to assail Trump. His final commencement address as president is June 2 at the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he likely will focus on the United States’ role in the world.
©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.