President Barack Obama returned Wednesday to the Illinois capital where he launched his national political career and appealed for help ridding politics of "polarization and meanness" that discourage participation in civic life.
In an address to the Illinois General Assembly, Obama said he regretted his failure to apply to Washington politics the lessons he had learned about working across the political aisle as a state senator. Changing the tone is possible, he said, but it "requires citizenship and a sense that we are one."
"Today, that kind of citizenship is threatened by a poisonous political climate that pushes people away from participating in our public life," Obama said. "It turns folks off. It discourages them. It makes them cynical. And when that happens, more powerful and extreme voices fill the void."
He offered a few prescriptions for changing the political climate, including reducing the influence of big money in politics, changing the way congressional districts are drawn and making it easier for people to vote in elections.
For nearly an hour Obama addressed the General Assembly in its ornate legislative chamber, exactly nine years after he stood on the steps of the Old State Capitol to announce what then was an improbable run for president. Before delivering Wednesday’s nostalgia-laced appeal for civility in politics, he dropped by one of his old lunchtime haunts to greet diners and pick up an order to go.
Obama spoke fondly of getting to know his colleagues in Springfield over fish fries and poker games, an aspect of political life in Washington that has all but disappeared as members of the House and Senate rush out of town on weekends to spend time with family back home.
"I miss you guys," he said as he left the cheering chamber.
In his final State of the Union address last month, Obama acknowledged that rancor and suspicion in Washington had worsened, not improved, since his election. He repeated that lament Wednesday, calling "my inability to reduce the polarization and meanness in our politics" one of his few regrets as president.
Obama’s visit to his former stamping grounds in Springfield opened a weeklong trip to California, where he will raise money for Democrats, appear on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" and host the leaders of 10 Southeast Asian nations for a two-day summit.
In many ways, though, Obama’s call to reclaim the meaning of citizenship and restore a sense of common purpose is harder than ever to achieve.
In the presidential campaign to succeed him, Republicans are arguing about whether to ban Muslims from the U.S. and are trading personal epithets barely suitable for print. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders is calling for political revolution fueled by animosity toward corporate interests.
On issue after issue, Obama’s agenda has been thwarted by stark disagreements with Republicans over the government’s role, leading Obama to act unilaterally in ways his opponents say is fit for a dictator.
So there’s more than a hint of irony in Obama’s appeal for Americans to start working together, Illinois Republicans said.
"I don’t know who in Washington would look and say, ‘Hey, follow our model in Washington. We’re really working well,"’ Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner said last week.
Obama returned to a statehouse that has weathered its share of turmoil since he left it behind in 2004. Two Illinois governors have been convicted of corruption and sent to prison — including Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who is serving time for trying to sell the U.S. Senate seat Obama vacated when he became president.
Meanwhile, Democrats who control both chambers of the legislature have butted heads with Rauner since the Republican and former businessman took office last year. The two sides have yet to agree on a state budget more than eight months into the fiscal year, prompting massive cuts to higher education and social service programs.
Obama returned to Springfield with several of the architects of his successful first presidential campaign, including then-chief strategist David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett, who remains a senior White House adviser. Both accompanied the president aboard Air Force One.
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