President Obama on Wednesday returned to Springfield, Ill. — where he launched his first White House campaign nine years ago — to call for the unity and civility in politics that has eluded his presidency.
Obama’s speech to the Illinois State Assembly comes amid a torrid political season, in which firebrand candidates, such as Donald TrumpDonald TrumpSenate committee moving forward with Russia hacking probe Trump must re-engage Africa to halt Chinese inroads Voter fraud allegations reignite squabble MORE and Bernie SandersBernie SandersVoter fraud allegations reignite squabble Mulvaney vows to give Trump straight talk on entitlements Senate confirms Trump's UN ambassador MORE, have emerged as a force in the race to succeed him.
“It’s been noted often by pundits that the tone of our politics hasn’t gotten better since I was inaugurated; it’s gotten worse,” he told members of the legislature, where he served from 1997 to 2004.
“That pushes people away from participating in our public life,” he added. “It turns folks off. It discourages them. It makes them cynical. And when that happens, more powerful and extreme voices fill the void. And when that happens, progress stalls.”
The president has repeatedly called on voters to reject the messages of “fear” coming from candidates like Trump, who has called for a ban on Muslim immigration to the United States. But Republican voters in New Hampshire sided with the billionaire real estate mogul, who crushed the competition in Tuesday night’s primary.
Without naming any candidates, Obama rebuked the rancorous rhetoric in today’s politics. He fondly recalled his days in the Illinois state Senate, when he forged compromise with his Republican colleagues despite deep ideological differences.
“We didn’t call each other idiots or fascists that were trying to destroy America, because then we would have to explain why we were playing poker with fascists or idiots,” the president joked.
“We could fight like heck on one issue and then shake hands on the next,” Obama added. “This is why I have always believed deeply in a better kind of politics, because of what I learned here.”
Obama’s riff on the need for compromise could also be interpreted as a knock against Sanders, who defeated Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonTrump clamps down on federal agencies Mellman: First things first? Dems indignant as Comey keeps his job MORE in the Granite State’s Democratic primary. The Vermont senator has run as a progressive purist against Clinton, who in turn has cast herself as a pragmatic protector of Obama’s legacy.
Obama said he is “not impressed” by leaders in either party who “boast of their refusal to compromise.”
“I am a progressive Democrat, I am proud of that. I make no bones about that,” he continued, rattling off a list of his beliefs. “When I’ve got an opportunity to find common ground, that doesn’t make me a sellout to my own party.”
Obama called it a fool’s errand to make “blanket promises to their base that it can’t possibly meet,” including “union bashing or corporate bashing without acknowledging that both workers and businesses make our economy run.”
“That kind of politics means that supporters will be perennially disappointed,” he said. “It only adds to folks’ sense that the system is rigged.”
White House aides stressed the speech did not just touch on Obama’s frustrations with the 2016 race but the polarization that has tinged nearly every one of his efforts to find common ground with Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Obama said that despite the gridlock in Washington, he’s accomplished a lot, ticking off examples, such as the economic recovery, his healthcare reform bill and the mission that killed Osama bin Laden.
“There is no doubt America is better off today than when I took office,” Obama said, drawing applause from Democrats, but not Republicans, gathered in the assembly chamber that has struggled with partisan divisions over the state’s budget.
He insisted the problems of politics are fixable, urging state governments to do away with partisan gerrymandering, arguing for an overhaul of the nation’s campaign finance system and redoubling his call for automatic voter registration .
“If 99 percent of us voted, it wouldn’t matter how much the one percent spends on elections,” Obama said.
Obama’s critics say the president hasn’t practiced what he’s preached when it comes to improving political rancor. The president flew on Air Force One with four Democratic members of Congress — but no Republicans. After departing Springfield, he’s heading to the West Coast for Democratic Party fundraisers in San Jose and Los Angeles.
The White House says the problem goes both ways. One day earlier, it was locked in a war of words with Republicans in Congress over the president’s final budget. GOP leaders of the House and Senate Budget Committees did not even invite Obama’s budget director for a hearing on the document.
Wednesday was a trip down memory lane for the president. He received a warm welcome from Illinois lawmakers and called several of them out by name during his hour-long speech.
Joining Obama on Air Force One was his former political guru, David Axelrod, and deputy chief of staff Anita Decker Breckenridge, who has worked for Obama since his days in the state Senate and helped organize his 2007 announcement. Longtime confidante Valerie Jarrett was also on the plane.
The president stopped for lunch at the Feed Store, one of his old stomping grounds in the shadow of the Old State Capitol, where he made his maiden speech as a presidential candidate.
“I recognize there is a certain presumptuousness — a certain audacity — to this announcement,” Obama said on the building’s steps nine years ago today. “I know I haven’t spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington. But I’ve been there long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change.”