Obama jabs Trump at Rutgers commencement: Build a future without ‘walls’ (PHOTOS)
Urging graduates to embrace change and help foster progress in America through participation, President Barack Obama's address to the Rutgers University Class of 2016 focused on persistence and taking action, but it was not without politics.
After being presented with an honorary doctorate degree in law, Obama addressed an enthusiastic crowd of nearly 50,000 graduates and attendees at High Point Solutions Stadium in Piscataway Sunday - the first sitting president to give the commencement address at Rutgers. The commencement was part of the university's 250th anniversary.
While the president's speech began with humorous references to the Garden State, including Rutgers grease trucks and fat sandwiches, and his goal of "finally settling this pork roll versus Taylor ham question," Obama also used the commencement stage as a platform to deliver a critique of Donald Trump.
The president spoke of the diversity within Rutgers, calling the university an "intellectual melting pot."
"America converges here and in so many ways the history of Rutgers mirrors the evolution of America," he said.
Referencing the changes that have taken place since the turn of the century — from terrorist attacks to the recession — Obama said that while change is often unsteady, it's not subsiding in America.
"America's progress has never been smooth or steady. Progress doesn't travel in a straight line. Progress in American has been hard and contentious...it remains uneven," he said. "The pace of change is not subsiding, it is accelerating and these changes not only offer great opportunity but great peril. your generation has everything it takes to lead this country toward a brighter future."
Look to the future
The president said he wasn't going to tell the Class of 2016 how to make the world better. "You'll figure it out," he said, adding that he had some suggestions.
First, he told the graduates, "when you hear someone longing for the good old days, take it with a grain of salt."
"Guess what, it ain't so. The good old days weren't all that good," he said.
He pointed to progress such as advances in gender equality and equal pay as well as the Affordable Care Act. The president said by almost every measure, America is better than it was 50 years ago, or even eight years ago.
"I say all these things not to make you complacent. We've got a bunch of big problems to solve," he said. "Change has been a constant in our history and the reason America is better is because we didn't look backwards. We didn't fear the future, we seized the future and made it our own."
Obama's speech then turned toward the 2016 presidential election with obvious references to probable GOP candidate Donald Trump's campaign.
Walls won't keep us safe
"The world is more interconnected than ever. Building a wall won't solve that," Obama said, alluding to Trump's idea to have a border wall built between the United States and Mexico. "The biggest challenges we face cannot be solved in isolation. To help ourselves, we've got to help others. Not pull up the drawbridge and try to keep the world out."
Obama went on to tell the graduates that "suggesting we can build an endless wall and blame our challenges on immigrants contradicts the evidence that our growth and innovation has been spurred by our ability to attract others from around the globe."
Obama also told the graduates that people who are placed in a position to make policy should value "facts, evidence, reason logic, and understanding of science.
"We have traditionally valued those things but if you were listening to today's political debate you might wonder where this strain of anti-intellectualism came from," Obama said, also referencing Gov. Chris Christie's former "Telling it like it is" campaign slogan. Christie's bid for the Republican nomination ended in February and the governor endorsed Trump.
"Ignorance is not a virtue. It's not cool to not know what you're talking about. That's not keeping it real or telling it like it is," Obama said in his speech.
Possible to make a difference
Obama said that affecting change isn't "hopeless" despite obstacles.
"If you wanna change this country for the better, you better start participating," Obama said. "The system isn't as rigged as you think, and it certainly isn't as hopeless as you think."
Making yet another Garden State reference, Obama quoted "his friend" Bruce Springsteen's hit "Badlands," urging graduates to be persistent and have faith instead of giving in to cynicism and spending their lives "waiting for a moment that just don't come," as the song states.
"You're gonna have some setbacks," he told the graduates. "You have to stick with it. You have to be persistent. Don't lose hope if sometimes you hit a roadblock."
Just before his address began, Obama was awarded an honorary degree by university president Robert Barchi, who called the president a "tireless advocate of social justice."
The head of the university began his career at Rutgers four years ago, as many members of the Class of 2016 were beginning their freshman year.
"We knew you were special. We knew you would be an historic class," Barchi said. "You are Rutgers' largest graduating class ever. You are among the most accomplished and most diverse at any university in the nation. One in every four of you is the first in his or her family to attend college."
Barchi spoke of the class of 2016's accomplishments in academics, athletics and community service.
"We haven't given you all the answers but I hope we've given you the intellectual curiosity to ask the right questions," Barchi said. "As you start your new lives as alumni, I have just one request: don't forget your unique place as the 250th anniversary class. Don't go out and make a fortune; make a difference."
Toniann Antonelli is a social content producer for NJ 101.5. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @ToniRadio1015.