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Will Obama's Belief In Politics Of "Hope" Spur Action In Illinois?

Barack Obama outside the Old State Capitol
Pool photo by Justin L. Fowler
The State Journal-Register

On a freezing February day in 2007, President Barack Obama announced his bid for the nation's highest office in front of the Old State Capitol in downtown Springfield -- the place where Abraham Lincoln gave his historic "House Divided" speech. At the time, Obama called for hope and change.

Nine years later -- to the very day -- Obama came back to Springfield. In his last year as president, he says he believes in the "politics of hope."

The themes of Obama's speech yesterday echoed what he'd said nine years ago, back when his hair hadn't yet gone gray.

We’ve got to 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 said. "What can we do, all of us, together, to try to make our politics better? And I speak to both sides on this. As all of you know, it could be better, and all of you would feel prouder of the work you do if it was better."

This time, though, Obama spoke before a joint session of the Illinois legislature at its current state capitol -- the very building that houses a state government that epitomizing the polarization the President was in town to decry.

A chasm between Illinois' Republican Governor, Bruce Rauner, and the Democrats who hold strong majorities in the legislature, is so deep, the state has gone 225 days without a budget, and counting. Obama only hinted at this divide in Illinois.

Though he was upfront in admitting Washington D.C. is no paragon of cooperation. "It's been noted often by pundits that the tone of our politics hasn't gotten better since I was inaugurated, in fact it's gotten worse; that there's still this yawning gap between the magnitude of our challenges and the smallness of our politics. Which is why, in my final State of the Union address, and in the one before that, I had to acknowledge that one of my few regrets is my inability to reduce the polarization and meanness in our politics. I was able to be part of that here and yet couldn't translate it the way I wanted to into our politics in Washington.

The President got nostalgic about it: He reminisced about going to fish-fries, visiting union halls, and playing a bipartisan poker game with other state legislators during his time in Springfield, and said those relationships laid a foundation of respect, which gave way to progress.

"And we didn't call each other idiots or fascists who were trying to destroy America. Because then we'd have to explain why we were playing poker or having a drink with an idiot or a fascist who was trying to destroy America," he said, prompting laughter.

It was clear that Obama felt at home and at ease. Before his speech, he stopped for soup at a favorite sandwich shop downtown, one state representative said that although she hadn't seen Obama in years, he'd noticed she'd lost weight, and the President was comfortable enough to continually go off script during his address, like when lawmakers stood, clapped or even shouted in reaction to what he said.

Most notably, that occurred after Rep. Ken Dunkin loudly said "that's right" when Obama said "Where I've got an opportunity to find some common ground, that doesn't make me a sellout to my own party.

Obama responded back saying, "We'll talk later, Dunkin."

Democrats wildly clapped, and rose from their seats.

"This is what happens, everybody starts cherry-picking," Obama said to laughter, more of which came when he added, "One thing I've learned is folks don't change."

Dunkin has gotten a reputation in some corners - namely that of his fellow House Democrats -- as a "sellout." The Chicago Democrat has sided with the Republican governor on a couple of close, controversial votes. Dunkin's fellow Democrats are flaming mad about it. As Dunkin attempts to fight off a primary challenge, he's so far received a half-million dollars of support from a conservative organization with ties to Gov. Rauner.

While most Illinois residents, and certainly a national audience, may not know the backstory, it's certainly interesting that the President is up enough on Illinois politics that he apparently does.

Rep. Dunkin is a Chicago Democrat who's sided with the Republican governor on a couple of close, controversial votes. Dunkin's fellow Democrats are flaming mad about it. As he attempts to fight off a primary challenge, he's so far received a half-million dollars of support from a conservative organization with ties to Gov. Rauner.

That this spontaneously arose during a speech in which the President called on politicians to bridge their divides shows the personal dynamics, the campaign money, and the ideological battles that all come into play.

Illinois' feuding top leaders all had a front row seat for the hour-long speech.

After, the Governor didn't have much to say about it; when asked he only said "good speech, good speech" before walking away (Rauner will have to give a major speech of his own, when he gives his budget address next week).

Senate President John Cullerton -- who met privately with Obama Wednesday morning -- has high hopes that lawmakers will take the President's message to heart, and that it could move negotiations along on a budget.

"I think it'll kind of make it ... really kind of embarrass people into not being so .... so, stuck in their ways, you know?" he said, "And hope that -- we still have a big gap to close, but if people (as I've been trying to do, by the way since I've been here) to try to do bring people together and try to pass some legislation."

Republicans by and large weren't quite that optimistic.

"I think you can never have enough reminders of the importance of coming back to a respectful tone. It's not going to change over night, the President acknowledged that," Rep. Tom Demmer, R-Dixon, said.

"I think we need to take his remarks today, and realize that we do need to work together to try and get things done. But is this going to move us off the dime a little bit on budget negotiations? I don't think so," Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, said.

"Politicians have a tendency to make really good speeches, right? We have a tendency to talk the talk. It's walking the walk that really vexes many politicians," said Sen. Sam McCann, R-Carlinville.

But most Republicans  -- including Demmer, Butler and McCann -- also said they appreciated the overall theme of Obama's remarks, and are open to some of his specific suggestions.

The President offered ideas for moving past today's fractured, media-driven, ultra-polarized politics -- like getting a handle on campaign contributions. As an Illinois voter and constituent, he endorsed legislation that's already been introduced in Springfield that would automatically register people to vote when they get or renew their driver's licenses.  He also called for moving politicians back to the middle by updating how Congressional districts are mapped -- a concept that Republicans, led by Gov. Rauner, support on the state level.

Whatever happens in Illinois, it seems, Obama may keep an eye on it, though by evening he'd once again boarded Air Force One and left Springfield.

He says this notion of building a new and better politics will be the focus for the remainder of his Presidency, and next year - when he goes back to having the title of "citizen."

Amanda Vinicky moved to Chicago Tonight on WTTW-TV PBS in 2017.
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