Obama Urges Bipartisanship in Address to Illinois General Assembly

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President Obama addressed a joint session of the Illinois General Assembly this afternoon, nine years to the day after he announced his run for the White House on the steps of the Old State Capitol. 

“This campaign has to be about reclaiming the meaning of citizenship, restoring our sense of common purpose and realizing few obstacles can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change,” Obama said in 2007. “By ourselves, this change will not happen. Divided, we are bound to fail.”

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Carol Marin was in Springfield when Obama announced his candidacy. Watch her Feb. 12, 2007 interview with Phil Ponce about Obama’s speech in the video below.

In a return to his old stomping grounds as a state senator, the president invoked many of the same themes from his 2007 speech.

“Nine years to the day that I first announced for this office, I still believe in the politics of hope,” Obama said Wednesday. “And for all of the challenges of a rapidly changing world and for all the imperfections of our democracy, the capacity to reach across our differences and choose that kind of politics—not a cynical politics, not a politics of fear—but that kind of politics sustained over the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime that’s something that remains entirely up to us.”

Joining us with more on the president's appeal to improve America's politics is "Chicago Tonight" Springfield reporter Amanda Vinicky.

Obama's speech

Jump ahead to the 16-minute mark to watch the president’s speech in the video below.

Obama began by reminiscing about his time in Springfield. He described a friendly atmosphere, where lawmakers respected colleagues across the aisle without abandoning their own principles. The president highlighted the problem of national political polarization, which he says is increasingly trickling down to statehouses. And he expressed regret that he wasn’t able to do more during his tenure as president to bring people of different viewpoints together. But he argued that today’s polarization isn’t because politicians are worse or the issues facing the U.S. more difficult – and that today’s situation is not hopeless.

“We’ve always gone through periods when our democracy seemed stuck,” the president said. “And when that happens, we have to find a new way of doing business. We’re in one of those moments. We’ve gotta build a better politics, one that’s less of a spectacle and more of a battle of ideas. One that’s less of a business and more of a mission. One that understands the success of the American experiment rests on our willingness to engage all our citizens in this work.”

He outlined three proposals to improve American democracy that align with those values:

  1. Reduce the influence of money in politics
  2. Take congressional redistricting out of the hands of lawmakers
  3. Make it easier to vote in an election

And while Gov. Bruce Rauner has claimed in recent weeks that the president supports the independent redistricting proposal in Rauner’s Turnaround agenda, Obama called out politicians for, well, playing politics with debates over gerrymandering.

“This tends to be popular, in states where Democrats have been drawing the lines, among Republicans – and less popular among Republicans where they control drawing the lines,” Obama said. “Let’s be very clear here, nobody’s got clean hands on this thing.”

Obama didn’t comment on Rauner’s legislative redistricting proposal one way or another, but so far the president has only remarked specifically on congressional redistricting, not on drawing state legislative districts.

When it came to the biggest issue in Illinois state politics, Obama stopped short of directly calling out Illinois lawmakers over the budget stalemate – save for one fairly direct mention.

“When I hear voices in either party boast of their refusal to compromise as an accomplishment in and of itself, I’m not impressed. All that does is prevent what most Americans would consider actual accomplishments, like fixing roads, educating kids, passing budgets, cleaning our environment, making our streets safe,” he said.

Obama’s mention of budgets triggered a round of applause that lasted about 25 seconds.

But despite the bipartisan tone of his visit – including a tarmac greeting from Gov. Rauner, spending time with former colleagues of both parties, and a warm mention of state Sen. Republican leader Christine Radogno in Obama’s speech – an anecdote about his first term as a state lawmaker may well sum up the effect of the president’s visit on a fractured Springfield: After Obama made a passionate argument in favor of a doomed bill, then-state Senate President James “Pate” Philip – a man “so politically incorrect that you don’t even know how to describe it” – came over and slapped the young politician on the back.

“Kid, that was a pretty good speech. In fact, I think you changed a lot of minds. But you didn’t change any votes,” Obama recounted.

Below, read Republican reaction to the president’s speech.

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