By Jacob Wheeler

President Obama at Michigan Stadium
photo by Sam Wolson/Michigan Daily

(video below)

ANN ARBOR —  President Barack Obama took a break from the constant political storms in Washington, D.C., to address the University of Michigan (U-M) 2010 spring commencement ceremony today. And thunderstorms rolling across the Midwest rewarded him with a break in the weather, as nearly 85,000 graduating seniors, U-M students, families and well-wishers enjoyed overcast skies and a humorous, but reflective speech on American politics that could well have been delivered in a political science lecture hall.

The crowd that packed into Michigan Stadium —  the gridiron popularly known in Ann Arbor as the “Big House” —  more than doubled that of typical commencement ceremonies, in no small part because of Obama’s popularity and intrigue among this student body, and young Americans in general. Early morning showers dropped spring rains on southeast Michigan, but the precipitation stopped in earnest by 9 a.m., two hours before the ceremony was to begin.

Adhering to a punctual schedule, Obama entered the stage shortly before 11 along with Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (a close ally of the President who may someday seek a cabinet position or a Supreme Court nomination once term limits end her governorship) and U-M President Mary Sue Coleman, and took a seat between the two. School of Music, Theatre & Dance senior Mary Martin then opened the ceremony with a performance of “The Star Spangled Banner,” followed by a Reflection from Samir Mohammed Islam, a senior from the College of Literature, Science and the Arts (LSA, which is U-M’s largest school).

Following remarks by esteemed faculty members, the spotlight turned to LSA Senior Alex Marston, a D.C. native and third-generation Michigan student whose grandparents met in Angell Hall during the 1940s. His speech on the topic of “change” seemed fitting with Obama just feet away from him, and the cameras focused on Mr. Change whenever the word was used.

“We desire change, but we fear it too,” Marston said. “After (Obama) took office, he found resistance to change,” at which the President whispered something to Gov. Granholm and laughed. Marston alluded to changes in U-M’s football program, a new coach and the team’s fall from grace over the past three years. The senior also lamented that, for today’s graduates, change will mean no more visits to the popular Ann Arbor bar Good Time Charlies, or Zingerman’s Deli, and its world famous pastrami sandwiches. “But still, we must embrace change and follow the lead of Michigan graduates to change the world.”

Coleman then honored the nation’s 44th President with an Honorary Doctor of Law degree before thanking Obama for making the trip on Air Force One: “Congratulations to a group of graduating students so exceptional that we had to show you off to the President of the United States. … President Obama, welcome to the Big House,” she said to thundering applause.”

Just after 11:30, Gov. Granholm took the podium (adorned with the President of the United States seal) and applauded Obama: “On behalf of our 10 million citizens, thank you for supporting our auto industry — Ford, General Motors, Chrysler. They all have bright futures now, whereas one year ago much darker clouds than these loomed overhead.” Granholm mentioned a recent visit by Vice President Joe Biden to promote Michigan’s electric battery sector. “We could not change Michigan from the rust belt to the green belt without your support, Mr. President,” she continued.

About 10 minutes later Obama rose and drew nearly 30 seconds of applause before opening his speech. He smiled, answered, “I love you back” and then pronounced, “It’s great to be here in the Big House. Go Blue,” admitting that he wanted to start things off with a cheap applause line.

Political science

Obama began his speech on a humorous note: “I am happy to join you all today, and even happier to spend a little time away from Washington. Don’t get me wrong — it’s a beautiful city. And it sure is nice living above the store; can’t beat the commute,” he joked. “It’s just that sometimes, all you hear in Washington is the clamor of politics — a noise that can drown out the voices of the people who sent you there.”

He reads 10 letters a night from ordinary citizens, including one from a kindergarten class in Virginia, which asked the leader of the free world a series of innocent questions. “One asked, ‘How do you do your job?’ Another asked, ‘Do you work a lot?’ Somebody wanted to know if I wear a black jacket or if I have a beard — clearly getting me mixed up with that other tall guy from Illinois. And then there was my favorite: ‘Do you live next to a volcano?’”

But after tickling the crowd’s funny bone, Obama adopted the conciliatory, unifying stance of the change-maker he’s aspired to be in the White House. He admitted that the debate over the size of government is a legitimate one that has existed since this country’s beginnings; he called on cable news pundits and others to keep the political debate civil, and he admitted that these issues of political tone are nothing new.

“Before we get too down on the current state of our politics, we need to remember our history. The great debates of the past all stirred great passion. They all made some angry. What is amazing is that despite all the conflict; despite all its flaws and frustrations, our experiment in democracy has worked better than any other form of government on Earth.

Obama’s call for a good government, of the people, seemed suitable for a political science class, if not a campaign rally: “Government is the police officers who are here protecting us and the service men and women who are defending us abroad. Government is the roads you drove in on and the speed limits that kept you safe.”

And then the President made perhaps the only allusion to the stormy issues of the day that are certainly on his mind as he flies back to Washington.

Senator Barack Obama in Michigan  #3 by radiospike photography
Senator Barack Obama in Michigan #3
by radiospike photography

“Government is what ensures that mines adhere to safety standards and that oil spills are cleaned up by the companies that caused them. Government is this extraordinary public university — a place that is doing life-saving research, catalyzing economic growth, and graduating students who will change the world around them in ways big and small.

Shortly after noon today, Obama wrapped up his speech, calling on U-M’s graduates to be tomorrow’s leaders, and protectors of democracy. And after the seniors filling the football field in a sea of black gowns were officially declared graduates, they honored tradition and tossed their black caps into the air. Formal above the waist, many graduates wore tennis shoes — even Bermuda shorts — below.

Sam Wolson of the Michigan Daily has a fantastic slideshow from President Barack Obama’s commencement address to the class of 2010 at the University of Michigan (Michigan Daily coverage of the address / full text of speech) Check out the slideshow and read the rest of Jacob’s feature below.

U-M a collegiate leader

Ross Business School by JSmith Photo
Ross Business School by JSmith Photo

President Barack Obama is the third sitting U.S. president to deliver a graduation commencement speech in Ann Arbor, following Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and George H. W. Bush in 1991. Johnson used this setting to outline the pillars of his Great Society legislation, which marked the 1960s. Bill Clinton also spoke to U-M’s graduates after he left the White House. Video images of Johnson and Bush both appeared on the jumbotron during today’s ceremony.

Though they weren’t commencement speeches, John F. Kennedy stopped for a midnight rally at the University of Michigan 50 years ago while on the 1960 campaign trail and introduced the Peace Corps. (“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” he said in that recognizable Bostonian accent.) And U-M alum and Grand Rapids native Gerald Ford (the only Michigan native to sit in the Oval Office) launched his unsuccessful re-election campaign here in 1976.

While U-M has taken its lumps on the gridiron in recent years, and all but ceded state basketball bragging rights to Tom Izzo and Michigan State, the university continues to be a national collegiate leader. University president Mary Sue Coleman, who took over the reigns in 2002 following Lee Bollinger’s tenure, launched “The Michigan Difference” campaign, which raised $3.2 billion — the most ever by a public university.

The university’s value to the state of Michigan is equally immense. The U-M Health System, which serves 1.7 million patients each year, boasts a medical school, three hospitals and more than 120 health centers and clinics. U-M spends over $1 billion annually on research, which has resulted in 2,521 discoveries, 1,184 patent applications and 83 startups. U-M is part of the University Research Corridor, a collaboration with Michigan State and Wayne State universities to accelerate statewide economic development.

Michigan Stadium, which opened in 1927 and was the first college stadium to use electronic scoreboards, holds a capacity of 106,201.