"I dare you, Class of 2013, to do better. I dare you to dream bigger," Obama said.
In a sunbaked stadium filled with more than 57,000 students, friends and relatives, Obama lamented an American political system that gets consumed by "small things" and works for the benefit of society's elite. He called graduates to duty to "accomplish great things," like rebuilding a still-feeble economy and fighting poverty and climate change.
"Only you can ultimately break that cycle. Only you can make sure the democracy you inherit is as good as we know it can be," Obama told more than 10,000 cap-and-gown-clad graduates gathered for the rite of passage. "But it requires your dedicated, informed and engaged citizenship."
The visit to Ohio State - the first of three commencement addresses Obama will give this season - was a homecoming of sorts for Obama, who has visited the campus five times over little more than a year, starting with his first official campaign rally here last May. He made many more stops elsewhere in Ohio as he and Republican Mitt Romney dueled for the Buckeye State, and its 18 electoral votes were pivotal to Obama's victories in both 2008 and 2012.
There was little direct mention of party politics Sunday, but ample allusion to the partisan battles that cramped many of Obama's legislative efforts in his first term and have continued unabated into his second.
In an apparent reference to his failed push on gun control, he bemoaned that a small minority in Congress find excuses to oppose things that most Americans support.
"This is a joyous occasion, so let me put it charitably: I think it's fair to say our democracy isn't working as well as we know it can," Obama said.
Invoking the end of the Cold War, 9/11 and the economic recession, Obama said this generation had been tested beyond what their parents could have imagined. But he said young Americans have responded with a deep commitment to service and a conviction that they can improve their surroundings. He urged graduates to run for office, start a business or join a cause, contending that the health of their democracy "requires your dedicated, informed and engaged citizenship."
"You've grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that's at the root of all our problems," Obama said. "You should reject these voices. Because what these suggest is that somehow our brave, creative, unique experiment in self-rule is just a sham with which we can't be trusted."
Among the 10,143 students receiving diplomas at this sprawling state university Sunday were 130 veterans, including the first class to benefit from the new GI Bill that Congress passed after 9/11, university officials said.
Ohio State also bestowed an honorary doctorate on Obama, applauding his "unwavering belief in the ability to unite people around a politics of purpose." Also honored was photographer Annie Leibovitz, whose images of Obama and his family have become iconic reflections on the nation's first black president.
Obama's other two commencement speeches this season will be later in May at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and at Morehouse College, an all-male school in Atlanta.