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Obama on Partisan Divide: 'I Could Have Done That a Little Better'

President Obama says he feels that he should have done more during his time in office to reach out to Republicans in an effort to smooth the political polarization in Washington.
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President Obama says he feels that he should have done more during his time in office to reach out to Republicans in an effort to smooth the political polarization in Washington.

“There is no doubt, that every step of the way, every day that I’m in that office, maybe I could have done that a little better,” he told the LA Times in an exclusive interview in Springfield, Illinois on Thursday.

Following a much anticipated speech to lawmakers in the Illinois State Senate, President Obama spoke at length about the need for a more respectful, collaborative American political rhetoric and where he fell short. The president sat down with the LA Times and three former colleagues, Illinois state legislators, Republican Kirk Dillard, and Democrats Denny Jacobs and Larry Walsh, to further discuss the gridlock in Washington.

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Obama said part of the problem with inviting colleagues or friends from the other side of the aisle to social events at the White House are the political implications of what such an outing may look like to others.

“Politically it was hazardous,” the president said.

Obama said the increased partisan polarization in Washington is “one of the few regrets of my presidency” during his final State of the Union address, saying “that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better.”

It’s a difficult dance in politics, but especially in Washington, Obama said.

Being president, he told the LA Times, “is an isolating position.”

Related: In Springfield, Obama Goes Back to the Start

“There are structural problems” that prevent true bipartisan socialization from happening on the national level,” he told the LA Times. “When I was in the Senate, in the United States Senate, I had very good relationships and friendships with some of the same people now who can’t take a picture with me. It wasn’t like I changed.”

Rather, the perceptions of mingling with a Democratic president, or perhaps with President Obama, took on a new meaning.

“What happens,” Obama said, “is that the biggest incentive of every member of Congress is to get reelected. It shouldn’t be the case, but that’s the overriding motivation that people have. And they’re operating, fearful that somehow lurking over the corner is something that’s going to lead them to lose.”

“And if, within their respective parties, you reaching out across the aisle or doing bipartisan work is going to put them in a riskier situation, then they shy away from it. And over time, you start getting further and further separation.”

When one of his former colleagues and mentors suggested that the president’s race played a role in hindering his political agenda, Obama said that issue went both ways.

“I have no doubt that there are people who voted against me because of race, or didn’t approve of my agenda because of race,” he said. “I also suspect there were a bunch of people who were excited and voted for me, or I got political benefits because of the notion of the first African American president. So those things cut both ways.”

Obama hopes that he will be thought of kindly when he leaves office.

“My hope is, is that I help create a tone for the next President. I suspect that when I’m done being president, suddenly people will start saying, oh, that guy, he wasn’t a bad guy,” Obama said. “Because you’re not subject to the daily pummeling that you are when you have the incredible privilege of being in office. And I think that’s okay.”