Using the NKS To Evaluate President Obama’s Ohio State Commencement Speech on Citizenship

A revealing scale by which to judge goals and speeches that lately I’ve been applying is what might be called the North Korean Standard (NKS)— as in:

  • Could this proposal for school reform be made by the Educational Ministry of North Korea?
  • Could this pronouncement about citizenship be made by a mayor of North Korea?

Yes, the leaders of North Korea want their students to be competitive in math and science and beat the pants off the kids in other nations — And Arne Duncan wants the same. The leaders of North Korea want their citizens to work together effectively and to give service and to show patriotism, and, to vote also — And President Obama wants the same.

At the recent graduation ceremony at Ohio State, President Obama focused most his speech on “citizenship.” His message seemed to be — go forth and practice good citizenship.

  • Obama said, “Choose a cause you care about in your life and fight like heck to make it happen. There is a word for this.  It’s citizenship.”
  • He said when disaster strikes — a hurricane, a bomb explosion — people pitch in and help, and that’s citizenship.

Obama said that citizenship involves responsibilities “to ourselves, to one another, and to future generations.” He quoted George W. Bush as saying, as a 2002 Ohio State Commencement, “America needs more than taxpayers, spectators, and occasional voters. America needs full-time citizens.” He seemed to equate citizenship with patriotism and quoted Adlai Stevenson definition of patriotism – not as “short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.”

These pronouncements align with the NKS, but at first glance it might look like President Obama veered from the NKS when he spoke about democracy and self-government.

  • Your democracy does not function without your active participation
  • America is not about what can be done for us.  It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but absolutely necessary work of self-government.
  • Only you can ultimately break that cycle.  Only you can make sure the democracy you inherit is as good as we know it can be.  But it requires your dedicated, informed, and engaged citizenship.  This citizenship is a harder, higher road to take.  But it leads to a better place.

But words by themselves mean little. The NKS is not about what terms are used, but about how terms are used to lull listeners into the comfort of group think. I always liked the quote of Lewis Carroll, Through The Looking Glass:

 “I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ ” Alice said.
    Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ ”

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”


President Obama did veer from the NKS offered a sense of humility: “I don’t pretend to have all the answers.  And I’m not going to offer some grand theory – not when it’s a beautiful day and you’ve got some celebrating to do.  I’m not going to get partisan, either, because that’s not what citizenship is about.”

But, then, it is all about rhetoric and meeting or exceeding the audience’s expectations and a little humility might be good for an American mix. It would be interesting to know how the Ohio State professors of rhetoric in the audience may have evaluated it on its message and its impact. On the North Korean Standard, it seemed to do pretty well. The speech is copied below:


President Obama Speech at Ohio State

Hello, Buckeyes!

Thank you Dr. Gee, the Board of Trustees, Congresswoman Beatty, Mayor Coleman, and all of you who make up The Ohio State University for allowing me the honor of joining you today.  Congratulations, Class of 2013!  And congratulations to all the parents, family, friends and faculty here in the Horseshoe – this is your day as well.  Just be careful with the turf.  I know Coach Meyer has big plans for fall.

Thank you, Dr. Gee, for that eloquent introduction, although I will not be singing today.  And yes, it is true that I did speak at that certain university up north a few years ago.  But, to be fair, you did let President Ford speak here once – and he played football for Michigan!

In my defense, this is my fifth visit to campus in the past year or so.  One time, I stopped at Sloopy’s to grab some lunch.  Many of you were still eating breakfast.  At 11:30.  On a Tuesday.  So I’ll offer my first piece of advice early: enjoy it while you still can.  Soon, you won’t get to do that.  And once you have kids, it gets even earlier.

Class of 2013, your path to this moment has wound you through years of breathtaking change.  You were born as freedom forced its way through a wall in Berlin, and tore down an Iron Curtain across Europe.  You were educated in an era of instant information that put the world’s accumulated knowledge at your fingertips.  And you came of age as terror touched our shores; an historic recession spread across the nation; and a new generation signed up to go to war.

You have been tested and tempered by events that your parents and I never imagined we’d see when we sat where you sit.  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.  For all the turmoil; for all the times you have been let down, or frustrated at the hand you’ve been dealt; what I have seen from your generation are perennial and quintessentially American values.  Altruism.  Empathy.  Tolerance.  Community.  And a deep sense of service that makes me optimistic for our future.

Consider that today, 50 ROTC cadets in your graduating class will become commissioned officers in the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines.  130 of your fellow graduates have already served – some in combat, some on multiple deployments.  Of the 98 veterans earning bachelor’s degrees today, 20 are graduating with honors.  And at least one kept serving his fellow veterans when he came home by starting up a campus organization called Vets4Vets.  As your Commander-in-Chief, I could not be prouder of all of you.

Consider, too, that graduates of this university serve their country through the Peace Corps, and educate our children through established programs like Teach for America and startups like Blue Engine, often earning little pay for making the biggest impact.  Some of you have already launched startup companies of your own.  And I suspect that those of you who pursue more education, or climb the corporate ladder, or enter the arts or sciences or journalism, will still choose a cause you care about in your life and fight like heck to make it happen.

There is a word for this.  It’s citizenship.  We don’t always talk about this idea much these days, let alone celebrate it.  Sometimes, we see it as a virtue from another time – one that’s slipping from a society that celebrates individual ambition; a society awash in instant technology that empowers us to leverage our skills and talents like never before, but just as easily allows us to retreat from the world.  And the result is that we sometimes forget the larger bonds we share, as one American family.

But it’s out there, all the time, every day – especially when we need it most.  Just look at the past year.  When a hurricane struck our mightiest city, and a factory exploded in small-town Texas.  When bombs went off in Boston, and when a malevolent spree of gunfire visited a movie theater, a temple, an Ohio high school, a first-grade classroom in Connecticut.  In the aftermath of darkest tragedy, we have seen the American spirit at its brightest.  We’ve seen the petty divisions of color, class, and creed replaced by a united urge to help.  We’ve seen courage and compassion, a sense of civic duty, and a recognition that we are not a collection of strangers; we are bound to one another by a set of ideals, and laws, and commitments, and a deep devotion to this country we love.

That’s what citizenship is.  It’s the idea at the heart of our founding – that as Americans, we are blessed with God-given and inalienable rights, but with those rights come responsibilities – to ourselves, to one another, and to future generations.

But if we’re being honest, as you’ve studied and worked and served to become good citizens, the institutions that give structure to our society have, at times, betrayed your trust.

In the run-up to the financial crisis, too many on Wall Street forgot that their obligations don’t end with their shareholders.  In entertainment and in the media, ratings and shock value often trumped news and storytelling.  And in Washington – well, this is a joyous occasion, so let me put this charitably: I think it’s fair to say our democracy isn’t working as well as we know it can.  It could do better.  And those of us fortunate enough to serve in these institutions owe it to you to do better, every single day.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we might keep this idea alive at a national level – not just on Election Day, or in times of tragedy, but on all the days in between.  Of course, I spend most of my time these days in Washington, a place that sorely needs it.  But I think of what your generation’s traits – compassion and energy, a sense of selflessness and a boundless digital fluency – might mean for a democracy that must adapt more quickly to keep up with the speed of technological, demographic, and wrenching economic change.

I think about how we might perpetuate this notion of citizenship in a way that another politician from my home state, Adlai Stevenson, once described patriotism – not as “short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.”

I don’t pretend to have all the answers.  And I’m not going to offer some grand theory – not when it’s a beautiful day and you’ve got some celebrating to do.  I’m not going to get partisan, either, because that’s not what citizenship is about.

In fact, I am asking the same thing of you that President Bush did when he spoke at this commencement in 2002:  “America needs more than taxpayers, spectators, and occasional voters,” he said.  “America needs full-time citizens.”

And as graduates from a university whose motto is “Education for Citizenship,” that’s what your country expects of you.  So briefly, I will ask you for two things: to participate, and to persevere.

After all, 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.  If they don’t represent you the way you want, or conduct themselves the way you expect – if they put special interests above your own – you’ve got to let them know that’s not okay.  And if they let you down, there’s a built-in day in November where you can really let them know that’s not okay.

You don’t have to run for office yourself.  But I hope many of you do, at all levels, because our democracy needs you.  I promise you, it’ll give you a tough skin.  I know a little bit about this.  Like President Wilson once said: “if you want to make enemies, try to change something.”

And that’s precisely what the founders left us: the power to adapt to changing times.  They left us the keys to a system of self-government – the tool to do big and important things together that we could not possibly do alone.  To stretch railroads and electricity and a highway system across a sprawling continent.  To educate our people with a system of public schools and land grant colleges, including Ohio State.  To care for the sick and the vulnerable, and provide a basic level of protection from falling into abject poverty in the wealthiest nation on Earth.  To conquer fascism and disease; to visit the Moon and Mars; to gradually secure our God-given rights for all our citizens, regardless of who they are, what they look like, or who they love.

We, the people, chose to do these things together.  Because we know this country cannot accomplish great things if we pursue nothing greater than our own individual ambition.

Still, you’ll hear voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s the root of all our problems, even as they do their best to gum up the works; or that tyranny always lurks just around the corner.  You should reject these voices.  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.

We have never been a people who place all our faith in government to solve our problems, nor do we want it to.  But we don’t think the government is the source of all our problems, either.  Because we understand that this democracy is ours.  As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us.  It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but absolutely necessary work of self-government.

The founders trusted us with this awesome authority.  We should trust ourselves with it, too.  Because when we don’t, when we turn away and get discouraged and 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.  That’s how our political system gets consumed by small things when we are a people called to do great things – rebuild a middle class, reverse the rise of inequality, repair a deteriorating climate that threatens everything we plan to leave for our kids and grandkids.

Only you can ultimately break that cycle.  Only you can make sure the democracy you inherit is as good as we know it can be.  But it requires your dedicated, informed, and engaged citizenship.  This citizenship is a harder, higher road to take.  But it leads to a better place.  It is how we built this country – together.  It is the question President Kennedy posed to the nation at his inauguration; the dream that Dr. King invoked.  It does not promise easy success or immediate progress.  But it has led to success, and it has led to progress.

That brings me to the second thing I ask of you – I ask you to persevere.

Whether you start a business or run for office or devote yourself to alleviating poverty or hunger, remember that nothing worth doing happens overnight.  A British inventor named Dyson went through more than 5,000 prototypes before getting that first really fancy vacuum cleaner just right.  We remember Michael Jordan’s six championships, not his nearly 15,000 missed shots. As for me, I lost my first race for Congress, and look at me now – I’m an honorary graduate of The Ohio State University!

The point is, in your life, you will fail.  You will stumble, and you will fall.  But that will make you better.  You’ll get it right the next time.  And that’s not only true for your personal pursuits, but for the broader causes you believe in as well.  But don’t give up.  Don’t lose heart, or grow cynical.  The cynics may be the loudest voices – but they accomplish the least.  It’s the silent disruptors – those who do the long, hard, committed work of change – that gradually push this country in the right direction, and make the most lasting difference.

Still, whenever you feel that creeping cynicism; whenever you hear those voices say you can’t make that difference; whenever somebody tells you to set your sights lower – the trajectory of America should give you hope.  What young generations have done before you should give you hope.  It was young folks like you who marched and mobilized and stood up and sat-in to secure women’s rights, and voting rights, and workers’ rights, and gay rights, often against incredible odds, often over the course of years, sometimes over the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.  Even if their rights were already secured, they fought to secure those rights and opportunities for others.  What they did should give you hope.

And where we’re going should give you hope.  Because while things are still hard for a lot of people, you have every reason to believe that your future is bright.  You are graduating into an economy and a job market that are steadily healing.  The once-dying American auto industry is on pace for its strongest performance in 20 years – something that means everything to many communities in Ohio and across the Midwest.  Huge strides in domestic energy, driven in part by research at universities like this one, have us on track to secure our own energy future.  And incredible advances in information and technology spurred largely by the risk-takers of your generation have the potential to change the way we do almost everything.

Still, if there is one certainty about the decade ahead, it’s that things will be uncertain.  Change will be a constant, just as it has been throughout our history.  And we still face many important challenges.  Some will require technological breakthroughs or new policy insights.  But more than anything, what we will need is political will, to harness the ingenuity of your generation, and encourage and inspire the hard work of dedicated citizens.

To repair the middle class; to give more families a fair shake; to reject a country in which only a lucky few prosper because it’s antithetical to our ideals and our democracy – that takes the dogged determination of citizens.

To educate more children at a younger age; to reform our high schools for a new time; to give more young people the chance to earn the kind of education you did at Ohio State and make it more affordable so they don’t leave with a mountain of debt – that takes the care and concern of citizens.

To build better roads and airports and faster internet; to advance the kind of basic research and technology that has always kept America ahead of everyone else – that takes the grit and fortitude of citizens.

To confront the threat of climate change before it’s too late – that requires the idealism and initiative of citizens.

To protect more of our kids from the horrors of gun violence – that requires the unwavering passion and untiring resolve of citizens.

Fifty years ago, President Kennedy told the class of 1963 that “our problems are man-made – therefore, they can be solved by man.  And man can be as big as he wants.”

We are blessed to live in the greatest nation on Earth.  But we can always be greater.  We can always aspire to something more.  That doesn’t depend on who you elect to office.  It depends on you, as citizens, how big you want to be, and how badly you want it.

Look at all America has accomplished.  Look at how big we’ve been.

I dare you to do better.  I dare you to be better.

From what I have seen of your generation, I have no doubt you will.  I wish you courage, and compassion, and all the strength you need for that tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.

Thank you, God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.

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