PISCATAWAY, N.J. — President Obama delivered a commencement address at Rutgers University on Sunday that steered clear of the typical graduation advice and sounded a lot like a tough, aggressive takedown of the Republican presidential front-runner.
The president, who spoke before a crowd of more than 50,000 in the school’s football stadium here, called on the graduates to reject politicians who hark back to better days. The 45-minute-long address was filled with obvious jabs at Republican front-runner Donald Trump, whom the president didn’t name but who was a foil for the graduation speech’s most cutting applause lines.
Obama slammed Trump’s proposal to build a wall along the country’s southern border, saying the world is becoming ever more interconnected and “building walls won’t change that.”
He mocked Trump’s call to “Make America Great Again” saying that there was never a better time to be alive on the planet and in America. College graduation rates were up, he said. Crime rates had dropped, and more women were in the workplace than ever before in the country’s history.
“When you hear someone longing for the good old days, take it with a grain of salt,” he said to boisterous applause. “Take it with a grain of salt.”
The president throughout his speech decried a strain of anti-intellectualism in American politics that he said rejects science, reason and debate. “These are things you want in people making policy,” Obama said to laughter. “That might seem obvious.”
At one point, clearly referring to Trump and other congressional Republicans who have decried efforts to combat global warming, Obama warned that “in politics and in life ignorance is not a virtue.”
“It’s not cool to not know what you are talking about,” he said. “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 are talking about.”
Throughout the year, Obama has turned again and again in speeches to the obligations that come with citizenship and the need for a more reasoned and respectful political debate at a moment when the country’s politics have never seemed more vulgar and poisonous.
Obama used his State of the Union address in January to call for a better politics in the country. He returned to the theme in a February speech to the Illinois State Senate, in a March address at an awards banquet honoring political journalists, and most recently last week in the Howard University commencement speech.
The Rutgers address picked up many of the themes in those earlier addresses but was the most explicitly partisan and edgy of the addresses and offered the clearest indication so far of how the president will make the case for a Democratic successor this summer and fall on the campaign trail.
Obama blasted the disdain for facts in the current political debates and the desire for political amateurs — clearly taking another dig at Trump’s lack of traditional political experience. Obama noted ironically that Americans like their doctors and airline pilots to be experienced and wondered why “in our public lives we suddenly think I don’t want someone who has done it before.”
“You might wonder where this strain of anti-intellectualism came from,” said Obama. “The rejection of reason the rejection of facts; that is the path to decline.”
He called on the graduates to hold leaders accountable and expect them “to know what the heck they are talking about.”
The president’s speech was also infused with a progressive optimism that is a regular element of his addresses and maintains that the country’s best days are ahead of it. He asked the students to vote and remain engaged in American politics, a theme he also hit in his recent Howard University commencement speech and in an interview with the Daily Targum, the university’s student newspaper.
“The system isn’t as rigged as you think, and it isn’t as hopeless as you think,” he said.
“Have faith in democracy,” Obama said a few minutes later. “It is not always pretty. I know. Really. I have been living it.”
Finally he warned the students against a righteous refusal to compromise that stymies progress. As an example Obama said he disagreed with students who a few years earlier had objected to former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice’s invitation to speak at the university.
Despite their disagreements over policy, Obama said the former secretary brought an important perspective and said that democracy demands that Americans listen to one another.
“If you disagree with someone, bring them in,” he said.
The Rutgers speech was the second of three commencement addresses that the president will give this year. Last week, Obama spoke at Howard University, where he focused on citizenship and social justice. In early June he will deliver commencement remarks at the United States Air Force Academy.
“The truth is, Rutgers, I came here because you asked,” Obama said. “You are the first to launch a three-year campaign” that included emails, letters, tweets YouTube videos and three letters from the student body president’s grandmothers.
“That was smart,” Obama said. “I have a soft spot for grandmothers.”