COLUMBUS, Ohio | Facing major challenges to his second-term agenda, President Obama on Sunday urged thousands of graduates at Ohio State University to get involved in the political process and vote out lawmakers who favor “special interests.”
The president’s recent defeat in the Senate on gun control was clearly on his mind as he addressed the 8,200 graduates and 60,000 of their guests at the school’s football stadium.
“To protect more of our kids from the horrors of gun violence — that requires the unwavering passion, the untiring resolve of citizens,” Mr. Obama said to applause. “Your democracy does not function without your active participation.”
It was the president’s first commencement speech of this graduation season. He will also speak at the commencement ceremonies of Morehouse College in Atlanta and at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.
Showing concern for Mr. Obama’s second-term initiatives, the White House also said Sunday that the president will embark on a series of economy-themed day trips to cities nationwide, beginning Thursday in Austin, Texas.
White House deputy press secretary Joshua Earnest said the events are designed to “push Congress to act” on programs to help the middle class. A White House official said on background the president wants to emphasize initiatives from his State of the Union address, such as universal preschool and an increase in the minimum wage, in addition to boosting jobs through more spending on infrastructure projects.
Mr. Obama came to Ohio on the heels of his trip late last week to Mexico and Costa Rica.
He mistakenly referred in his speech to an Ohio State student hangout as “Sloppy’s” and corrected himself to call it “Sloopy’s.” He blamed the mistake on weariness from his foreign trip that ended Saturday night.
The president told graduates they must educate themselves again as they leave school, to learn who is serving their interests in Washington and who is not.
“At a bare minimum, that means voting, eagerly and often,” he said. “It means knowing who’s been elected to make decisions on your behalf, what they believe in, and whether or not they deliver.”
Security in Ohio weighed more heavily than usual on the minds of law enforcement officials, who asked guests to arrive as early as six hours ahead of the graduation ceremony for security screenings. It was Mr. Obama’s first appearance in a stadium setting since the Boston Marathon bombings last month, although he did attend the opening of the George W. Bush presidential library in Dallas two weeks ago.
Mr. Obama told graduates that the spirit of citizenship is always evident when America faces a crisis.
“Just look at the past year — when a hurricane struck our mightiest city and a factory exploded in a small town in Texas,” he said. “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.”
The president said that in spite of the heroism shown by Americans routinely in crises, their democratic institutions too often are failing them.
“The institutions that give structure to our society have, at times, betrayed your trust,” Mr. Obama said. “In the run-up to the financial crisis, too many on Wall Street forgot that their obligations don’t end with what’s happening with their shares. In entertainment and in the media, ratings and shock value often trumped news and storytelling. And in Washington … I think it’s fair to say our democracy isn’t working as well as we know it can.”