It is a privilege to be with you on this happy occasion, and, you know, it’s nice to spend a little time outside of Washington. (Laughter.) Now, don’t get me wrong -– Washington is a beautiful city. It’s very nice living above the store; you can’t beat the commute. (Laughter.) It’s just sometimes all you hear in Washington is the clamor of politics. And all that noise can drown out the voices of the people who sent you there. So when I took office, I decided that each night I would read 10 letters out of the tens of thousands that are sent to us by ordinary Americans every day –- this is my modest effort to remind myself of why I ran in the first place.
Some of these letters tell stories of heartache and struggle. Some express gratitude, some express anger. I’d say a good solid third call me an idiot — (laughter) — which is how I know that I’m getting a good, representative sample. (Laughter and applause.) Some of the letters make you think — like the one that I received last month from a kindergarten class in Virginia.
Now, the teacher of this class instructed the students to ask me any question they wanted. So one asked, “How do you do your job?” Another asked, “Do you work a lot?” (Laughter.) Somebody wanted to know if I wear a black jacket or if I have a beard –- (laughter) — so clearly they were getting me mixed up with the other tall guy from Illinois. (Laughter.) And one of my favorites was from a kid who wanted to know if I lived next to a volcano. (Laughter.) I’m still trying to piece the thought process on this one. (Laughter.) Loved this letter.
But it was the last question from the last student in the letter that gave me pause. The student asked, “Are people being nice?” Are people being nice?
Well, if you turn on the news today, or yesterday, or a week ago, or a month ago –- particularly one of the cable channels -– (laughter) — you can see why even a kindergartener would ask this question. (Laughter.) We’ve got politicians calling each other all sorts of unflattering names. Pundits and talking heads shout at each other. The media tends to play up every hint of conflict, because it makes for a sexier story -– which means anyone interested in getting coverage feels compelled to make their arguments as outrageous and as incendiary as possible.
Now, some of this contentiousness can be attributed to the incredibly difficult moment in which we find ourselves as a nation. The fact is, when you leave here today you will search for work in an economy that is still emerging from the worst crisis since the Great Depression. You live in a century where the speed with which jobs and industries move across the globe is forcing America to compete like never before. You will raise your children at a time when threats like terrorism and climate change aren’t confined within the borders of any one country. And as our world grows smaller and more connected, you will live and work with more people who don’t look like you or think like you or come from where you do.
Full transcript via WSJ