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Obama on Trump: “In politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue”

Obama’s response to “make America great again”: America is greater than it’s ever been.

Obama Delivers Commencement Address At Rutgers University Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images

President Barack Obama headed to Rutgers University over the weekend to deliver the commencement address to the class of 2016. His message? Whatever you do, don't elect Donald Trump.

Trump's name was never mentioned, but Obama's speech was a point-by-point rebuttal to the core themes of Trump's campaign.

To Trump's call of "Make America Great Again," Obama responded by saying, in effect, America is greater than ever:

The "good old days" weren’t that great. Yes, there have been some stretches in our history where the economy grew much faster, or when government ran more smoothly. There were moments when, immediately after World War II, for example, or the end of the Cold War, when the world bent more easily to our will. But those are sporadic, those moments, those episodes. In fact, by almost every measure, America is better, and the world is better, than it was 50 years ago, or 30 years ago, or even eight years ago. (Applause.)

And by the way, I'm not -- set aside 150 years ago, pre-Civil War -- there’s a whole bunch of stuff there we could talk about. Set aside life in the ‘50s, when women and people of color were systematically excluded from big chunks of American life. Since I graduated, in 1983 -- which isn't that long ago -- (laughter) -- I'm just saying. Since I graduated, crime rates, teenage pregnancy, the share of Americans living in poverty -- they’re all down. The share of Americans with college educations has gone way up. Our life expectancy has, as well. Blacks and Latinos have risen up the ranks in business and politics. (Applause.) More women are in the workforce. (Applause.) They’re earning more money -- although it’s long past time that we passed laws to make sure that women are getting the same pay for the same work as men. (Applause.)

Meanwhile, in the eight years since most of you started high school, we’re also better off. You and your fellow graduates are entering the job market with better prospects than any time since 2007. Twenty million more Americans know the financial security of health insurance. We’re less dependent on foreign oil. We’ve doubled the production of clean energy. We have cut the high school dropout rate. We've cut the deficit by two-thirds. Marriage equality is the law of the land.

Obama's argument here is unmarred by bashfulness about the past eight years — an advantage that the Republicans challenging Trump lacked. They spent so much time decrying the state of the country that they had little response to Trump's more full-throated nostalgia for a brighter past. Even Hillary Clinton's response to Trump on this point has been a bit wan: "America never stopped being great," she's said, which is a rejoinder, but not a very sharp one.

In contrast, Obama draws the battle lines clearly. His contention is that this, right now, is the greatest the country has ever been, and if you don't believe it, go ask a gay couple who just got married, or a poor single mother who just got health care, or an African American who was able to be elected president of the United States.

"That leads me to my second point," Obama went on. "The world is more interconnected than ever before, and it’s becoming more connected every day. Building walls won’t change that." He continued:

Isolating or disparaging Muslims, suggesting that they should be treated differently when it comes to entering this country -- (applause) -- that is not just a betrayal of our values -- (applause) -- that's not just a betrayal of who we are, it would alienate the very communities at home and abroad who are our most important partners in the fight against violent extremism. Suggesting that we can build an endless wall along our borders, and blame our challenges on immigrants -- that doesn’t just run counter to our history as the world’s melting pot; it contradicts the evidence that our growth and our innovation and our dynamism has always been spurred by our ability to attract strivers from every corner of the globe. That's how we became America. Why would we want to stop it now?

But it was the third leg of Obama's argument that was the most unsparing.

"Class of 2016, let me be as clear as I can be," he said. "In politics and in life, 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. That's not challenging political correctness. That's just not knowing what you're talking about. And yet we've become confused about this.

"When our leaders express a disdain for facts, when they’re not held accountable for repeating falsehoods and just making stuff up, while actual experts are dismissed as elitists, then we’ve got a problem."

Obama took this critique in an unusual direction, though. He didn't just accuse Trump of ignorance. He tried to write him out of America's fundamental traditions of governance. "Our nation’s founders — Franklin, Madison, Hamilton, Jefferson — they were born of the Enlightenment. They sought to escape superstition, and sectarianism, and tribalism, and know-nothingness." The contrast he was drawing was clear.

Watching this speech, you could see just how much Obama wants to run against Trump. In a sense, the men are opposites: the cerebral, optimistic, inclusive tribune of a younger, more multicultural America against the instinctual, pessimistic, exclusive champion of a whiter, male-dominated power structure. To consign Trumpism to the dustbin of American politics would be to show, once and for all, that Obama's political coalition is truly in ascendance and this country has changed in fundamental ways.

Which signals a final takeaway from this speech: Hillary Clinton will have no trouble persuading Obama to campaign hard for her this fall.