"We cannot expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down," Obama told about 92,000 people during a commencement address at Michigan Stadium. "You can question someone's views and their judgment without questioning their motives or their patriotism."
Calling for "a basic level of civility in our public debate," Obama said: "These arguments we're having over government and healthcare and war and taxes are serious arguments. They should arouse people's passions, and it's important for everyone to join in the debate, with all the rigor that a free people require."
But he said serious debate is too often overshadowed in the political climate of sharp partisan divides and overheated rhetoric captured in sound bites.
"We've got politicians calling each other all sorts of unflattering names, pundits and talking heads shout at each other," Obama said.
"As I've found out after a year in the White House, changing this type of slash-and-burn politics isn't easy," Obama said. "And part of what civility requires is that we recall the simple lesson most of us learned from our parents: Treat others as you would like to be treated, with courtesy and respect."
The president took aim at those who have been "throwing around phrases like 'socialists' and 'Soviet-style takeover' and 'fascist' and 'right-wing nut,'" saying such name-calling "may grab headlines, but it also has the effect of comparing our government, or our political opponents, to authoritarian, and even murderous regimes."
He urged the 8,000 members of Michigan's class of 2010 to consider public life, to realize citizenship in a democracy requires staying well-informed, and to stay connected with and hold accountable elected officials.
"The question for your generation is this: How will you keep our democracy going?'" Obama said. "At a moment when our challenges seem so big and our politics seem so small, how will you keep our democracy alive and well in this century?"
Defending the role of government in healthcare, economic stimulus and financial reform, Obama said: "American democracy has thrived because we have recognized the need for a government that, while limited, can still help us adapt to a changing world. But what troubles me is when I hear people say that all of government is inherently bad. … For when our government is spoken of as some menacing, threatening foreign entity, it conveniently ignores the fact in our democracy, government is us."