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It had been nine years since President Obama last visited Springfield Illinois. He seemed to savor the nostalgic trip down memory lane.
First, he stopped at The Feed Store, one of his old haunts, where he grabbed a bite to eat — the barley soup and a turkey sandwich. Then with long-time aide Valerie Jarrett and confidant David Axelrod, who rejoined Obama for the day, the president shook hands with a line of state house workers standing in the cold afternoon air to catch a glimpse, and hopefully a quick picture of their returning hero.
Alexrod, shivering, told reporters it was “balmy,” compared to the time they were there nine years ago, almost to the day, when Obama launched his presidential bid.
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The temperature was in the teens on that Saturday morning of February 7, 2007, when a youthful looking Senator Barack Obama took center stage at the Old State Capitol, where Abraham Lincoln had famously denounced slavery, declaring, "a house divided against itself cannot stand."
Obama announced he would run for president, stating, “I recognize there is a certain presumptuousness — a certain audacity — to this announcement. I know I haven't spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington. But I've been there long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change."
On Wednesday, before a packed joint session of the Illinois legislature, where Obama served 7 years in the state senate, Obama talked about some of those ways that he insists must change to make Washington and the rest of the nation’s politics work better.
"There’s a yawning gap between the magnitude of the challenges we face and the smallness of our politics," he said. The president recalled his days at the statehouse, when as a freshman lawmaker, he said he was able to build relationships with colleagues from diverse backgrounds across the state. He talked about bipartisan poker games, fish fries, time together away from their families.
"We didn’t call each other idiots and fascists," he said. Obama spoke of accomplishments like passing the “first serious ethics reform in 25 years."
But back In Washington these days, the president’s critics, who say he is aloof and divisive, accuse him of being a big part of the problem.
During his State of the Union last month, in a moment of self-reflection, Obama even admitted "that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better," during his time in office. He called that state of affairs one of his biggest regrets.
The president said America’s problem is that "the parties themselves have become more homogeneous than ever." And, he said, a "fractured media," makes it easy for everyone to "choose their own facts."
He noted there’s too much dark, untraceable money, in campaigns. "Just over a hundred fifty families ... have spent as much on the presidential race as the rest of America combined," Obama said, criticizing, as he has before, the U.S. Supreme Court' "Citizen’s United" decision, which essentially said the right to spend money on campaigns is akin to free speech.
Obama also called for "rethinking" how Congressional districts are drawn, so they’re not gerrymandered to look like "ear muffs or spaghetti," to favor one party. He said States should make it, ”easier not harder,” for citizens to vote, and that the public should “insist on a modicum of civility,” from their leaders. “Our children are watching what we do,” he reminded the country’s leaders, in yet another apparent criticism of some of the language the President says he’s heard on the campaign trail.
The President received numerous standing ovations, some with more Democrats than Republicans on their feet, reminiscent of the State of the Union tradition that gives America a stark look at the nation’s deep partisan divide. And there was no mention of the fact that the Illinois legislature, with Democratic majorities, is locked in a long running partisan budget standoff, driving up the state’s debt and threatening deep social service cuts. The president did not weigh in on what was perhaps a case study of dysfunctional politics right before his eyes.
Later, Obama spoke to a group of supporters at a nearby arts center, filled with reminders of his time on the campaign trail. Bunting and banners adorned the room with the slogan "Yes, We Can." And at least one supporter called for "four more years."
The president left Illinois for a series of big-dollar Democratic fundraisers on the West Coast. Following his talk about how to make the country’s politics better, Obama’s critics will be watching to see if he walks the walk.