Barack Obama on Wednesday returns to the Midwestern city where his White House journey began, to sell progress made in office and address one of the great failings of his presidency.
Standing in frigid Springfield, Illinois in 2007, Obama told anyone listening that he was running for president.
The young senator pitched himself, above all, as an outsider who could soothe divisive partisan politics.
He told the bundled-up crowd: “You believe we can be one people, reaching for what’s possible, building that more perfect union.”
In case anyone missed the point, Obama’s remarks were delivered from the same spot where Abraham Lincoln — that great unifier — declared “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”
American voters, after years of divisions over Iraq, responded warmly to Obama’s bipartisan message by handing him the White House — and, ironically, a thumping partisan majority in Congress.
With control of government at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, Obama bypassed Republican opposition to enact sweeping reform of Wall Street and health care.
Of course, the situation is very different now.
Republicans, who now control Congress, accuse him of governing by executive order and of riding roughshod over “American values” on issues from gay marriage to abortion.
Nine years later, Obama returns to the city where it all began and where he was once a state senator.
By his own admission, Obama the president has come up short on his campaign pledge to ease partisanship.
“It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency — that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better,” he said during his last State of the Union address.
“There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide.
“I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office,” he added, a frank admission for a president who has always looked to history as a guide and measuring post.
In an election year, when campaigns have been dominated by tough talk and trenchant ideology on both sides, that is a massive task.
– A house divided –
On the campaign trail, Republicans and Democrats — divided enough within their parties — have shed any pretense of working with the other side.
“We didn’t get a leader, we got someone who wants to divide the country up,” said Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush in describing Obama’s presidency.
As if to reinforce the point, on the eve of his Springfield speech, Obama submitted a budget to the Republican-controlled Congress.
Republican leaders promptly said they would ignore it and draft their own.
During his address, Obama is likely to put today’s partisanship in the context of fierce political challenges faced by Lincoln and others.
A decade after Lincoln’s “house divided” speech, a brutal Civil War killed more than 600,000 men.
It was a time when, as Lincoln put it, “the heavens are hung in black.”
Obama will likely try to provide a more positive vision, recalling his time in the still troubled Illinois state legislature when bipartisanship worked.
He is also expected to outline measures that he believes can ease the enmity: campaign finance reform, more civil discourse, more participatory democracy and fewer rigged districts.
The president will outline “steps states can take to make it easier for people to participate,” the White House said.
But while Obama will likely decry issues like the role of money in politics, the realities remain stark.
After the speech, he will jet to California for a series of Democratic fundraisers, where it is normally good for business to take a few jabs at Republicans.
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