President Barack Obama returned Wednesday to the Illinois state Capitol with a plea for lawmakers to avoid “poisonous” politics.
He appealed to state lawmakers, and the public, to rid politics of “polarization and meanness” that discourage widespread participation in civic life.
“It’s gotten worse,” he said bluntly in an address to the Illinois General Assembly, on the anniversary of his entry into presidential politics.
“Today, that kind of citizenship is threatened by a poisonous political climate that pushes people away from participating in our public life,” Obama added. “It turns folks off. It discourages them. It makes them cynical. And when that happens, more powerful and extreme voices fill the void.”
It turns folks off. It discourages them. It makes them cynical. And when that happens, more powerful and extreme voices fill the void.
President Barack Obama, on political climate
Finding common ground with a lawmaker from the other party “doesn’t make me a sellout to my own party,” Obama said. “It means I’m trying to get stuff done.”
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.”
Obama, a former Illinois state senator, spoke warmly of his former colleagues in Springfield. Those he name-checked included Sen. Dave Luechtefeld, R-Okawville. Luechtefeld has spoken previously about how he played poker in the Capitol with Obama and other senators.
Obama mentioned the poker games, saying they helped people get along. He also commented on a Springfield delicacy.
“I can’t say I miss the horseshoes,” he said of the dish that generally includes bread, meat and french fries, all covered in cheese sauce.
At one point, when audience members rose and applauded, Obama discouraged them, saying he didn’t want it to be like a State of the Union address, “with the standing up and sitting down.”
He added, “Come on, guys, you know better than that.”
Springfield is awash in an acidic partisan feud. Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, Democratic legislative leaders led by longtime Speaker Michael Madigan and even Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel have engaged in sometimes uncomfortably personal attacks over the state budget mess, Chicago schools, the governor’s appointments and more, taking finger-pointing to a new level.
The state has stumbled along without a budget for eight months because Rauner insists on business-friendly changes in state law that would crimp union power to boost commerce while Democrats say a multibillion-dollar deficit requires immediate attention with a tax increase and spending cuts.
Obama criticized gerrymandering and joked it’s the reason “why our districts are shaped like earmuffs or spaghetti.” Luechtefeld said afterward that Republicans agree with Obama’s suggestion to change the way political maps are drawn in Illinois.
“We welcome the president’s call for gerrymandering and campaign finance reforms and we hope that House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton will heed his advice,” Luechtefeld said. “We look forward to having a meaningful discussion with the majority party as we begin to bring Illinois back. While today was a historic moment, tomorrow we return to the reality of Illinois’ serious problems.”
In a tweet, Luechtefeld said Illinois’ redistricting process is by far the “ugliest and most political thing that happens” in the state.
Sen. Kyle McCarter, R-Lebanon, said: “Politicians should not pick their voters, voters should pick their politicians. The answer is an independent commission not influenced by politics and politicians looking out for themselves.”
Obama’s visit came at the twilight of his political career, pleading once again for the type of national unity that has eluded him as president.