Barack Obama returned to the scene of his national political debut nine years ago, but he excluded the public from a speech where he choose to scold his former home state and the nation on how to “build a better politics.”
Obama’s central theme was to plea for more unity in political discourse, delivered via a closed-door meeting of the state legislature, in a state so bitterly divided that the Democrat-run legislature and the Republican Governor have gone almost a year without being able to agree on a budget.
“The tone of our politics hasn’t gotten better, it’s gotten worse,” the president lamented. “There’s still this yawning gap between the magnitude of our challenges and the smallness of our politics,” he added.
“I don’t want to be nostalgic here. We voted against each other all the time … but those relationships, that trust we built meant that we came at each debate assuming the best about each other, not the worst,” Obama insisted.
The president went on to blast the “smallness” of American politics and the “ease with which we’re distracted by the petty and trivial.”
“When I hear either side talking about refusal to compromise as actual accomplishment, I’m not impressed,” he insisted.
Despite his lamentations, though, Obama is the president who famously rode into Washington showing the opposition party he had little interest in working with them, directly telling them, “I won.”
The president’s triumphant taunt was immediately followed by his elimination of Republicans from budget negotiations and an additional three years where he refused to even take meetings with Republican leadership.
Obama next took a shot at money in politics.
To build a “better politics,” Obama said it was important to get money out of the mix. In a clear attack on the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, Obama said, “I don’t believe that money is speech or that political spending should have no limits.”
Obama went on to slap the media and talk radio, saying, “If I listened to some of these conservative pundits, I wouldn’t have voted for me either. I sound like a scary guy.”
“This is an important part of the issue — we have an importation of our politics nationally on cable and talk radio and it seeps into everything,” he said before going on scold hardliners on both the Democrat and the Republican side of the aisle.
Obama also slammed the political class for gerrymandering districts — something that has been going on since the days of the Founding Fathers (the Gerry of “gerrymandering” refers to Elbridge Gerry, a founder who became our fifth vice president.)
Obama told the Illinois legislators that the pettiness of gerrymandering turns off voters.
“Today, that kind of citizenship is threatened by a poisonous political climate that pushes people away from participating in our public life,” Obama said. “It turns folks off. It discourages them. It makes them cynical. And when that happens, more powerful and extreme voices fill the void”
As to local reaction to the speech, one small newspaper wasn’t amused. The exclusivity of the speech caused the newspaper to scoff that Obama “doesn’t need us anymore.”
Noting that the public was invited to Obama’s 2007 announcement speech but that the speech this week was limited to the power brokers, the Kankakee Daily Journal accused the president of “shutting out” his Illinois supporters by only allowing legislators to attend his Wednesday speech.
“It seems like Obama is turning his back on the people who elevated him to widespread popularity and put him in the White House for eight years. It’s in one word, disappointing. Of course, there are those who will tell you that lone word describes his entire presidency,” the paper said in an editorial.
Follow Warner Todd Huston on Twitter @warnerthuston, or email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.