President Barack Obama has a simple, pointed message for entrepreneurs and college graduates alike: "In politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue," he said, in what was the clearest reference he's given yet to his feelings vis-à-vis the Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump.
Obama spoke at Rutgers University's 250th graduation ceremony on Sunday evening. The speech offered lessons of wisdom and guidance--and, in many ways, was an attack against the current electoral climate and Trump's asserted political views.
"Facts, evidence, reason, logic, an understanding of science--these are good things, these are qualities you want in people making policy," he said. "That might seem obvious. But if you were listening to today's political debate, you might wonder where this strain of anti-intellectualism came from."
Specifically, Obama decried Trump's proposals to build a wall barring Mexican immigrants from entering the country, and to treat Muslims differently from other religious or ethnic groups seeking U.S. citizenship.
"The world is more interconnected than ever before. Building walls won't change that," Obama said. He further pointed to the country's history as a meeting ground of separate cultures, which has spurred conversation and social change. "Suggesting we can 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 innovation and our dynamism has always been spurred by our ability to attract strivers from every corner of the world."
To the President's point, business leaders across the country are currently battling to win H-1B visas for temporary foreign labor, citing the economic value of having immigrant workers. Gopal Krishnamurthy, founder and CEO of Visual BI Solutions, a financial services firm based in Plano, Tex., has operations in both the U.S. and India, and routinely applies for H-1B visas to bring over his best talent from overseas. Last year, he submitted 20 applications to the USCIS lottery.
"Our business has to be global, because I can't find the talent here," Krishnamurthy told Inc. Another entrepreneur, Jiri Stejskal, operates a translation firm, and says he relies on H-1B visas to bring over multi-lingual project managers.
Echoing themes of his previous commencement address at Howard University last week, Obama went on to insist that America is a stronger nation than ever. He noted that since he graduated in 1983, crime and teen pregnancy rates have dropped dramatically, while the share of Americans with college educations has gone up, and people of color are now better represented in business and politics.
In a hat tip to the sustained gender wage gap, he reflected that "more women are in the workforce, they're earning more money, although it's long past time that we pass laws to make sure that women are getting the same pay for the same work as men." Today, women earn just 83 percent of what men do for the same level of work, according to the most recent available data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Overall, the President's message to graduates was one of optimism. Citing the troubling statistic that voter turnout in 2014 was at its lowest since World War II, he urged Millennials to fight to have their values represented in Congress, as faith in the U.S. government is on the decline. A 2015 survey from Harvard's Institute of Politics revealed that just 18 percent of Millennials trust Congress to "do the right thing," while only 36 percent trust the President to do the same. The numbers are just as bad on the state and local government level -- 30 percent and 33 percent, respectively.
"Contrary to what we hear sometimes from both the left, as well as the right, the system isn't as rigged as you think, and it's certainly not as hopeless as you think," Obama insisted. He gave a prominent example: "It took Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP to win Brown vs. the Board of education," a Supreme Court ruling which ended legal segregation in all U.S. public schools -- though not until 1954.
Still, Obama cautioned that optimism and the drive for change must be fueled by cold, hard, facts. An issue like climate change "is not subject to political spin," he said, in spite of the fact that several Republican leaders have denied the reality of man-made global warming. Compelling data clearly shows that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels had never risen above 300 parts per million (ppm) for centuries, though they've skyrocketed to 400 ppm since 1950, according to NASA's Global Climate Change database. Still, as of 2014, just 8 Republicans in Congress (out of 278 in the caucus,) had made on-the-record comments accepting climate change, according to PolitiFact.
Obama ended his speech in the same way he began it, by hearkening to the late civil rights advocate, Dr. Martin Luther King Junior, who said: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."
He urged graduates to actively bend the arc in the better direction, and to avoid giving in to apathy. "Don't let resistance make you cynical," he said. "Cynicism is so easy. And cynics don't accomplish much."