By Jeff Mason
ANN ARBOR, Michigan (Reuters) - President Barack Obama, whose legislative priorities include reforms that critics say make the government too powerful, offered a broad defense on Saturday of government itself before November elections.
Differences between Democrats and Republicans in U.S. politics often boil down to a debate over the size of government, and the issue, which covers topics as broad as Obama's push for healthcare and financial regulatory reform, is likely to be a major topic in the upcoming vote.
Obama, a Democrat, used a commencement address at the University of Michigan to encourage new graduates to engage in civil debate -- an issue Obama feels is often missing in Washington -- and expose themselves to different political points of view.
But he focused the key message of his speech on the role of government, couched in the context of Wall Street reform and even the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
"We know that too much government can stifle competition and deprive us of choice and burden us with debt," he said.
"But we've also clearly seen the dangers of too little government -- like when a lack of accountability on Wall Street nearly leads to the collapse of our entire economy."
Obama, who will travel to the Gulf on Sunday morning to observe efforts to avert an environmental disaster, cited laws that will require oil company BP to pay for the damage and cleanup as evidence of a government that works.
"Government is what ensures that mines adhere to safety standards and that oil spills are cleaned up by the companies that caused them," he said.
CALL FOR CIVILITY
Republicans opposed Obama's overhaul of the healthcare system largely on the grounds it would put more authority over citizens' care in the hands of government.
But the president, with some humor, pointed out that the argument could be taken too far, noting that a favorite sign he saw while traveling the country was one that exhorted politicians to keep government out of Medicare, a government-run healthcare program for seniors.
"We can and should debate the role of government in our lives. But remember ... that the ability for us to adapt our government to the needs of the age has helped make our democracy work since its inception," he said.
Obama noted that Republican Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower had launched big government initiatives such as the first intercontinental railroad, national parks and the Interstate Highway System.
Obama lamented the lack of civility in public discourse and encouraged the students to be able to disagree without demonizing their opponents.
"We can't expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down," he said to applause.
"Throwing around phrases like 'socialists' and 'Soviet-style takeover' and 'fascist' and 'right-wing nut' -- that may grab headlines, but it also has the effect of comparing our government, our political opponents, to authoritarian, even murderous regimes."
Responding to Obama's comments, Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, said in a statement, "Maybe he was talking about his own comments just two weeks ago when he was 'questioning the motives' of the Republican Leader, calling him 'unflattering names' and 'demonizing' his positions on bailouts."
(Additional reporting by Ross Colvin in Washington; Editing by Peter Cooney)