“So briefly, I’ll ask for two things from the Class of 2013: 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 — not having somebody drag you to it at 11:30 a.m. when you’re having breakfast. (Laughter.) It means knowing who’s been elected to make decisions on your behalf, and what they believe in, and whether or not they delivered on what they said they would. And 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 often enough, there’s a built-in day in November where you can really let them know it’s not okay. (Applause.)….
And that’s precisely what the Founders left us — the power, each of us, to adapt to changing times. They left us the keys to a system of self-government, the tools to do big things 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 The Ohio State University. 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. (Applause.) To conquer fascism and disease; to visit the Moon and Mars; to gradually secure our God-given rights for all of our citizens, regardless of who they are, or what they look like, or who they love. (Applause.)
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 ambitiom.
Unfortunately, you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems; some of these same voices also doing their best to gum up the works. They’ll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices. Because what they suggest is that our brave and creative and unique experiment in self-rule is somehow just a sham with which we can’t be trusted.
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 cynical, and abdicate that authority, we grant our silent consent to someone who will gladly claim it. That’s how we end up with lobbyists who set the agenda; and policies detached from what middle-class families face every day; the well-connected who publicly demand that Washington stay out of their business — and then whisper in government’s 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 — like rebuild a middle class, and reverse the rise of inequality, and repair the deteriorating climate that threatens everything we plan to leave for our kids and our grandkids.
…. Only you can make sure the democracy you inherit is as good as we know it can be. But it requires your dedicated, and informed, and engaged citizenship. And that citizenship is a harder, higher road to take, but it leads to a better place. It’s how we built this country — together….
Which brings me to the second thing I ask of all of you — I ask that you persevere. Whether you start a business, or run for office, or devote yourself to alleviating poverty or hunger, please 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; we don’t remember 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. (Applause.)
The point is, if you are living your life to the fullest, you will fail, you will stumble, you will screw up, you will fall down. But it will make you stronger, and you’ll get it right the next time, or the time after that, or the time after that….
…. You can’t lose heart, or grow cynical if there are twists and turns on your journey. The cynics may be the loudest voices — but I promise you, they will accomplish the least. It’s those folks who stay at it, 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….
…. the trajectory of this great nation should give you hope. What generations have done before you should give you hope…. 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’re graduating into an economy and a job market that is steadily healing….
…. To repair the middle class, to give more families a fair shake, to reject a country in which only a lucky few prosper because that’s antithetical to our ideals and our democracy — all of this is going to happen if you are involved, because it takes dogged determination — the dogged determination of our citizens….
To protect more of our kids from the horrors of gun violence — that requires the unwavering passion, the untiring resolve of citizens….
…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 us to be, how badly you want to see these changes for the better.
And look at all that America has already accomplished. Look at how big we’ve been. I dare you, Class of 2013, to do better. I dare you to dream bigger.