On the ninth anniversary of the day he launched his run for president, Barack Obama returned to his political beginnings Wednesday and delivered an unprecedented hour-long speech to Illinois state lawmakers in Springfield.
In the speech, Obama addressed the extreme political polarization he sees happening in the country, and in Illinois. But after Obama was finished, about the only thing Republicans and Democrats agreed on is that the speech wouldn’t change things.
Obama’s return to the statehouse to talk bipartisanship had added significance given the crowd he was talking to: Illinois state political leaders lawmakers who are still locked in an eight-month-long, no-end-in-sight political impasse with no state budget.
If there’s one politician to lecture Illinois leaders about compromise, who could be better than President Barack Obama? A man who actually worked in Springfield as a state senator and then was elected president - twice - on a message of unity.
Obama’s speech was chock full of references to Illinois’ history of strong political figures who’ve inspired him.
“Somebody like Jesse White. You know, was able to travel around the state and people didn’t even know what party he was necessarily from because he brought so much joy with the Tumblers and the work that they were doing,” he said. “So I want you to know that this is why I’ve always believed so deeply in a better kind of politics. In part because of what I learned here, in this legislature.”
But that same legislature has changed drastically since Obama left for Washington, D.C. in 2004. And there were signs that the partisan divide in Springfield is like the one in the nation’s capital.
Illinois senators and representatives were sitting in the House chambers, Republicans on one side of the room and Democrats on the other. And the line that got the biggest applause was when Obama called out a Democrat who has sided with Republican Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner on several issues.
State Rep. Ken Dunkin, D-Chicago, seemingly has his entire party against him because of his allegiance with Rauner. When Obama started talking about compromise and how it doesn’t mean you’re selling out your party, it could be argued he was saying Dunkin’s in the right.
But then Obama left no doubts that he was not talking about Ken Dunkin.
“Where I’ve got an opportunity to find some common ground, that doesn’t make me a sell out to my own party. That applies...Now...the same...Well we’ll talk later Dunkin, you just see,” Obama said.
The crowd roared at Obama’s rebuke of the state lawmakers who has stood by Rauner’s side at press conferences.
That was likely the one thing in the speech the rest of the country doesn’t care about. But obviously the Illinois statehouse, cares about it a lot.
And on the same issue of compromise - Obama got in a not-so-subtle dig at Rauner.
“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.
To make those actual accomplishments possible, Obama laid out a handful of changes that he said would address voter cynicism and extreme policies. Obama advocated for making it harder for a few rich people to put so much money in politics, making it easier to vote, and changing who draws legislative districts so it’s not done by a political party.
Obama ended his speech on Wednesday by echoing the 2007 speech that kicked off his presidential campaign.
“Nine years to the day that I first announced for this office I still believe in that politics of hope. And for all 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 dedication of a lifetime: That’s something that remains entirely up to us,” he said.
If it’s entirely up to the politicians, they weren’t moved.
“President Obama is uniquely unqualified to deliver this message,” Republican U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam said in a statement. “Illinois Democrats have turned our state into a fiscal basket case,” he said.
State Rep. Mary Flowers, D-Chicago, said she didn’t see the speech changing any positions in Springfield, but at least it started a conversation.
So if President Obama isn’t the one to change the political stalemate, maybe someone should check on the Pope’s availability.
Tony Arnold is WBEZ’s State Politics Reporter. Follow him @tonyjarnold.