President Obama Talks Bipartisanship to Illinois Lawmakers

Feb 10, 2016

Wednesday afternoon President Barack Obama returned to the Illinois State Capitol. In the place where his political career began ... he spoke to lawmakers about reaching across the bitter divide in American politics.

Obama seemed to be at ease speaking from behind the podium in the Illinois House. After all, he was addressing a roomful of people who used to call him by his first name.

"Thank you for such a warm welcome as I come back home."

In his final year in office, Obama is renewing the call that animated his 2008 campaign  - that American politics has grown nastier than most of its citizens want it to be.

"We can't move forward if all we do is tear each other down."

With less than year left as president, Obama is once again calling on Democrats and Republicans to work together - or to at least be more civil.

"The way we respect or don't - this - each other as citizens, will determine whether or not the hard, frustrating, but absolutely necessary work of self-government continues."

The setting could not be more appropriate - a political stalemate has left Illinois with a budget for more than 200 days.

The president chose to focus on broader themes, making only a few passing references to that conflict.

The first time President Obama won office was in 1996, when he was elected to the Illinois Senate. As a rookie, Obama says he wasn't part of the back-room, high-level meetings where deals were made, so he had time to get to know other legislators.

"And so we became friends. We went to fish fries together, we'd go to union halls, we'd play in golf scrambles. We had a great bipartisan poker game."

Away from TV cameras and tweets, he says, legislators from all over Illinois, from all backgrounds, and from both parties found commonalities. Party lines usually held, and they still disagreed -  but he says the relationships helped lawmakers to compromise.

"So I want you to know 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 many Illinois lawmakers say times have changed since Obama left for Washington in 2005.

In fact, David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, says bi-partisanship is more difficult to achieve today because of modern technology and media.

"Even since Barack Obama was in the Illinois Legislature, the arrival of smart phones, and social media, of cable talk shows, and he mentioned this, it just fuels this incivility, this name calling. I think it's going to be awfully hard to get that genie back in the bottle."

Obama returned to Springfield on the nine-year anniversary that he announced his candidacy for President on the steps of the Old State Capitol.