SPRINGFIELD — A nostalgic President Barack Obama returned Wednesday to the city where he kicked off his presidential bid nine years ago to address a sharply divided Illinois General Assembly about the need for politicians to work together.
“We’ve got to build a better politics,” the president said, insisting “we can’t move forward if all we do is tear each other down.”
Although Obama spoke in the state House chamber before Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democratic-controlled Legislature — who have been unable to pass a state budget — the president largely tailored his message to the political polarization dividing the nation.
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Obama, in his last year as president, said progress for American citizens is “threatened by a poisonous political climate that pushes people away from participating in our public life.”
“It turns folks off. It discourages them, makes them cynical,” Obama said. “And when that happens, more powerful and extreme voices fill the void. When that happens, progress stalls.”
Obama prescribed a series of steps that he admitted had been suggested by others in the past. He called for reducing the role of money in politics, rethinking how congressional districts are drawn, making it easier for people to register to vote and changing the nature of how elected officials and citizens work together.
He used his earlier experiences in Springfield as state senator as examples of a time when politics worked better. He said he learned to respect Republicans during regular bipartisan poker games.
He said they didn’t hurl insults at one another, such as “idiot” or “fascists who were trying to destroy America.”
“Because then we’d have to explain why we were playing poker or having a drink with an idiot or a fascist who was trying to destroy America,” he said.
Obama said he always continued to believe in politics in part because of what he learned in Springfield — the place where he came “ready to make a difference” but needed “a little dose or reality.”
He talked of regret: “One of my few regrets is my inability to reduce the polarization and meanness in our politics. I was able to be part of that here and yet couldn’t translate it the way I wanted to into our politics in Washington.”
But even as he sang the praises of bipartisanship, Obama tossed bits of red meat to Democrats.
“I believe that collective bargaining is critical to the prospects of the middle class,” he said during a recital of his “progressive” values.
Democrats gave that line a standing ovation. Not surprisingly, Republicans and Rauner, who has made curtailing union power a priority, remained seated.
Obama said American is better off today than when he took office, which left Republicans in their seats, but brought Democrats to their feet.
“I didn’t want this to be a State of Union speech where we have the standing up and the sitting down,” Obama said to laughs. “Come on, guys, you know better than that. No, no, no, I’ve got a serious point to make here. I’ve got a serious point to make here because this is part of the issue, right?”
And even as he was extolling the importance of working with the other party, Obama took a shot at one Democrat who has very publicly crossed the aisle in recent months.
Obama said he worked with GOP senators to find common ground in Springfield, but “that doesn’t make me a sellout to my own party.”
That prompted state Rep. Ken Dunkin to stand up, clap his hands and yell “yes!” The South Side Democrat has broken ranks with his party and sided with Rauner on some votes and been sharply critical of House Speaker Mike Madigan.
“We’ll talk later Dunkin. You just sit down,” Obama said
Democrats and a few Republicans stood up and applauded.
Obama also got applause from many on both sides of the aisle — including Rauner — when he ticked off a list of what governments should do, including passing budgets.
The president also called for the Legislature to pass a bill sponsored by state Sen. Andy Manar, D-Carlinville, and Rep. Robyn Gabel, D-Evanston, that would register people to vote when they get their driver’s licenses.
“As one of your constituents, I think you should pass that legislation right away,” Obama said. “Let’s make the land of Lincoln a leader in voter participation.”
Obama peppered his 59-minute speech with other local references, mentioning Senate President John Cullerton, his predecessor Emil Jones, Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno and other former colleagues. And he dissed Springfield’s best known culinary concoction, a hamburger or other meat sandwich smothered in French fries and melted cheese.
“I can’t say I miss the horseshoes,” Obama said.
Later, Obama visited the Hoogland Center for the Arts, where he thanked local supporters — including campaign workers, union members who supported his bids for the presidency and of course, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, among others.
In introducing Obama, Durbin thanked him for offering a “front row seat” to the presidency and called his return “historic.”
“I believe today as I did nine years ago that his vision, his leadership and his determination were exactly the right thing for America,” Durbin said. “Welcome back to Springfield, Illinois.”
Obama spoke for about 17 minutes, then spent the rest of his time there shaking hands with the audience. The president was lighthearted and nostalgic in his address.
“The point is that every day I’ve been reminded of the goodness of the American people, and that all started with so many of you,” Obama said.
He joked about the number of gray hairs. He told a crying child she needed some sleep. And when a woman screamed “We need four more years,” he knew what to say.
“Oh no, we’re not doing that,” Obama said. “Not only because of the Constitution, but because Michelle would kill me.”
He talked about his future days as a “citizen.”
“This is an opportunity to say thank you. I appreciate what you guys have done, and I could not have done what I did without the people here in Illinois, the people here in Springfield,” Obama said. “It has been an extraordinary privilege.”