WASHINGTON — For the rest of his last year — and when he’s out of office, President Barack Obama is determined to grapple with his major failure, changing the tone of politics.
“This is what will be a focus of mine over the course of this year and beyond,” Obama saidWednesdayin his speech to a joint session of the Illinois General Assembly, returning to Springfield, where he once served as a state senator, to talk about the bitter partisanship he was not able to root out of the political system.
Nine years ago, when I was part of the freezing crowd outside the Old State Capitol in Springfield, reporting on Obama officially kicking off his presidential bid, I wondered how all that hope and change he was promising would play out if he made it to the White House.
I was curious — and skeptical — if it was indeed possible for Obama’saspirational campaign to usher in some new political era of comity.
In his final State of the Union address in January – yes, we are in the last laps of the Obama presidency, Obama confessed that one of the “few regrets” he has is that “rancor and suspicion” between parties has gotten worse on his watch.
Obama underscored that in Springfield. “It’s been noted often by pundits that the tone of our politics hasn’t gotten better since I was inaugurated. In fact, it’s gotten worse.”
The byproduct of that sort of political bitterness is easy to see in the GOP presidential primary, where hopefuls Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio seek to divide us while they play on our fears.
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In Springfield, the partisan divides are so deep between GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner, who can’t see beyond his hate of labor unions and the Democratic bosses insulated with their supermajorities,House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, that state government is paralyzed.
But Springfield is the place Obama wanted to return on this ninth anniversary day. He flew in in for a big dose of nostalgia — on former Senate President “Pate” Philip, “so politically incorrect that you don’t even know how to describe it”was my favorite blast from the past —while calling again for a politics forgiving enough to allow for compromise.
Today, a “poisonous political climate” turns people off on politics. And without naming names or mentioning the 2016 presidential contest, Obama said “when that happens, more powerful and extreme voices fill the void.”
We’re in a place where our democracy, as Obama put it, “seems stuck.” Springfield isn’t working, Congress is gridlocked.
Obama said finding common ground doesn’t “make me a sellout to my own party,” and showing he was well briefed on local politics —he toldRep. Ken Dunkin – the Chicago Democrat who has been siding with Rauner on some crucial votes — to sit down when he jumped up to clap at the sellout line.
With Congress and Springfield stalemated and presidential candidates bragging about standing their ground, Obama said of that extreme partisanship, “when I hear voices in either party boast of their refusal to compromise as an accomplishment in and of itself, I’m not impressed.”
The point of being in government is to figure out a way to govern.
In laying out some prescriptions for change, Obama’s nudge on gerrymandering was quieter than I expected, given that he was talking to the very state lawmakers who draw the redistricting maps – and who could vote to change the system. He didn’t mention the big referendum drive going on in Illinois to put a remap question on the November ballot.
And Obama only focused on congressional districts – not saying a word about state legislative mapmaking. Partisanship and polarization are also fueled, Obama said, by “a handful of folks with a lot of money.” Getting unlimited, unregulated money out of politics has been a thing of Obama’s for years.
Obama ended on the upbeat. “Nine years to the day I first announced for this office, I still believe in the politics of hope.”
And a short time later, the homecoming over, Obama climbed aboard Air Force One and jetted to California, whereon Thursdayin Palo Alto and Los Angeles he headlines fundraisers for the Democratic National Committee and the Senate Democrats political organization.