Springfield, Ill. – President Obama returned Wednesday to the place where he launched his first White House bid and delivered an impassioned speech in which he asked, and occasionally pleaded, with his fellow citizens for a more civil and respectful politics.
Obama warned that Americans’ unity and common purpose were being “threatened by a poisonous political climate that pushes people away from participating in public life. It turns folks off. It discourages them and makes them cynical.”
His remarks seemed fueled by his personal regret that politics have become more divisive during his time in the White House. “It’s been noted often by pundits that the tone of our politics has not gotten better since I was elected; it’s gotten worse,” Obama said during an address at the Illinois State Assembly, where he served as a state senator from 1997 to 2004.
His speech also reflected a deep alarm at the angry and polarizing language of the campaign to replace him.
In one instance, Obama seemed to take direct aim at Republican front-runner Donald Trump, who notched a commanding win in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary. “Rather than reward the most extreme voices or the most divisive language or who is best at launching schoolyard taunts, we should insist on a higher form of political discourse,” Obama said.
He castigated politicians who touted their refusal to compromise as “an accomplishment in and of itself.” Such hard-line positions don’t fix roads, educate children or keep the streets safe, he said.
Obama declared his candidacy outside the Old State Capitol building here in 2007 promising that as president he would help heal the country’s partisan divides. “This campaign has to be about reclaiming the meaning of citizenship, restoring our sense of common purpose and realizing that few obstacles can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change,” Obama said in that speech.
He returned to Springfield nine years later to deliver a more humble and less audacious speech, informed by his own regrets and his nostalgia for a time when politics wasn’t so marked by malice and personal insult.
Obama was greeted warmly on his return to his political roots, and he returned the love, name-checking colleagues and recalling funny and humbling moments from his time in the legislature. He visited his old Illinois Senate office and emphasized that despite the political battles Democrats waged with Republicans, many of them considered each other friends. They played golf and poker together and attended fish fries.
The president made a stop for takeout at the Feed Shop, a deli in the shadow of the Old State Capitol. Outside, he shook hands with passersby and reached across a rope to hug Dave Sullivan, a former Republican state senator with whom Obama had worked during his time in the legislature.
“We didn’t call each other idiots or fascists who are trying to destroy America, [because] we’d have to explain why we were having a drink or playing poker with an idiot or a fascist,” Obama said.
His remarks were serious in some moments and full of loose, good humor in others. “I don’t pretend to have all the answers to this,” he said, joking that if he did, he would just enact them through an executive order.
“That was just a joke, guys, relax,” he said. “A sense of humor is also helpful.”
In his State of the Union address last month, Obama said one of the biggest regrets of his presidency was that “the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better.” That has been reflected in Springfield, where an eight-month budget standoff between the Republican governor and Democratic-controlled legislature has thrown the state into a crippling financial crisis.
In his remarks here on Wednesday, Obama described the “yawning gap” between the “magnitude” of the country’s challenges and the “smallness” of its politics, and just as he did in 2007, he urged the American people to push for change.
“We can’t move forward if all we do is tear each other down,” he said. “And the political incentives as they are today too often reward that kind of behavior.”
Obama called for a series of tangible changes that he said would ease the political discord, and lead to a politics “that’s less of a spectacle and more of a battle of ideas.” He urged legislation to limit the ability of an small number of billionaires to bankroll elections, noting that 150 wealthy families have spent as much on the 2016 presidential race as the rest of the country combined.
He called for an end to gerrymandered districts packed with large majorities of either Democrat or Republican voters. “Let’s be very clear here,” he said. “Nobody has got clean hands on this thing. This is something we all have the power to fix.”
He spoke of the need for reforms to make it easier for Americans to vote, chiding Republicans in the chamber when they didn’t leap to applaud his call. “You liked the redistricting thing but not letting people vote,” Obama said. “I should get some applause on that too.”
Much of Obama’s speech was directed not at political insiders or lawmakers in the chamber, but at the American people, who Obama urged to play a more active part in the country’s politics and demand more from their politicians.
He called on politicians act with greater empathy at a time when voters seem to be rewarding anger and insults.
“It will require some courage just to act the way our parents taught us to act,” Obama said. “It shouldn’t, but in this political environment apparently it does. We’ve got to insist to do better from each other, for each other
Obama compared the current moment in American politics to other instances in the country’s history when divisions seemed even deeper.
“We’ve always gone through periods when our democracy seems stuck, and when that happens we have to find a new way of doing business,” Obama said. This was one of those moments, he said.
“We have a problem,” he said, “and we all know it.”
(C) 2016, The Washington Post · David Nakamura, Greg Jaffe