President Obama returned to where it all began to once again call for hope and change in politics. On Wednesday, he stood before the general assembly in his home state of Illinois to lay out his vision for the future, only this time he was talking about the years after he is in the White House.
Obama was a stone’s throw from Springfield’s Old State Capitol, where he stood exactly nine years ago and declared he was jumping into the race for the presidency. At the time, he was a first-term Senator preparing to take on a bevy of veteran politicians with a message of change.
But on Wednesday, he returned as a second-term President — with graying hair and a face wrinkled by the stress of the job — who is again hoping to rally Americans behind him in believing that the country’s politics can and must be better.
“The problem is not that politicians are worse. The problem is not that politics are tougher. We’ve always gone through periods where our democracy seems stuck,” Obama said. “We’re in one of those moments … We’ve got to build a better politics. One that’s less of a spectacle and more of a battle of ideas.”
During the often nostalgic speech, Obama shunned the notion that the nation’s politics are unfixable and that things aren’t better. But he argued that petty bickering, relaxed rules on political spending, gerrymandering and new rules on voting are problems that need to be addressed.
“In America, politicians should not pick their voters, voters should pick their politicians,” Obama said.
At the Illinois State Capitol, he spoke longingly of the work he was able to accomplish while working there, despite having distinct differences with his colleagues on the other side of the aisle. They did it, he said, without calling each other names like “idiots” or “fascists” because they’d have to in turn explain why they were “playing poker with idiots and fascists.”
But over the past nine years he’s learned the hard way that similarly bridging the divide in Washington is not an easy task. In his final State of the Union address in January, he noted that things had gotten worse under his tenure, saying that perhaps a “President with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide.”
The speech comes at a particularly interesting moment in the nation’s political history. On Tuesday, voters in New Hampshire supported Republican real estate mogul Donald Trump and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in the respective Republican and Democratic primaries, two candidates who rarely speak about bridging the partisan divide.
In his remarks, Obama sought to present a contrasting view that seems to echo more the rhetoric of his former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who has stressed a more pragmatic approach in her campaign for the presidency.
“I am a progressive Democrat. I am proud of that. I make no bones about it,” Obama said, ticking off a laundry list of Democratic values. “When I’ve got an opportunity to find some common ground, that doesn’t make me a sellout to my own party.”
The speech was not the only time that Obama has tried to set up a contrast to the campaign’s divisive rhetoric. When Republican candidates began suggesting that refugees and immigrants needed to face stricter scrutiny before coming the U.S., Obama spoke at a naturalization ceremony. When Trump suggested banning Muslims from entering the country, Obama condemned the statements, then later visited a mosque for the first time as President. And his final State of the Union felt like a long rebuttal to many of the remarks at the Republican presidential debates.
Obama’s speech in Illinois sounded a hopeful note. He preached that sunny optimism before Congress in January and the latter portion of that speech paralleled the one he delivered in Illinois on Wednesday. Big money, pessimism and divisiveness don’t have to be the end-all-be-all to the American political system.
“Our politics is where we try to make this incredible machinery work,” Obama said. “Where we come together to settle our differences … do big things together that we could not possibly do alone.”
So much of our politics now is designed for short-term, tactical gain, Obama said, but the democracy only works when the system is fair and the constituents and politicians work together to make things better.
“We can’t move forward if all we do is tear each other down,” Obama said. “It will require some courage just to act the way our parents taught us to act. It shouldn’t.”
Watch Obama’s 2007 speech below: