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Obama Speaks To Lawmakers In Springfield, Ill., Where He Announced Candidacy


Those who know our government best also seem frustrated with it, or at least with the partisanship that seems to overshadow everything these days. A freshman senator from Illinois was hoping to change that when he announced his long-shot bid for the White House nine years ago today.


BARACK OBAMA: In the face of a politics that's shut you out, that's told you to settle, that's divided us for too long, you believe that we can be on people.

MCEVERS: Candidate Barack Obama spoke on the steps of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., where Abraham Lincoln famously warned that a house divided cannot stand. Now, President Obama returned to Springfield today to renew his call for a less divisive style of politics. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Obama has delivered, at least in part, on many of the promises he made that cold February day nine years ago. Health insurance is more accessible, clean energy more widely available. But the goal that defined Obama's campaign, finding common ground between citizens of red states and blue, has eluded him. Today, America's House is more divided than ever, and Obama calls that one his biggest disappointments.


OBAMA: I have, as president, obviously done soul-searching about what are things I could do differently to help bridge some of those divides.

HORSLEY: It's not just Obama's soul that needs searching, though. Just look at the results of yesterday's New Hampshire primary, where both party winners were among the most extreme voices on the left and the right.

DAN GLICKMAN: All you'd have to do is watch the presidential debates, and you begin to see that compromise and the golden rule are not strong enough principles within our political system

HORSLEY: Dan Glickman is a former congressman, now with the Bipartisan Policy Center. He says, unless Democrats and Republicans find a way to work together, it's going to be tough to tackle the nation's biggest challenges. And that's why Obama came back to Springfield today, the place where he began his political career in the Illinois State Senate.


OBAMA: Thank you for such a warm welcome as I come back home.


OBAMA: Thank you.

HORSLEY: It was here in the state legislature, Obama says, that he learned downstate farmers and inner-city law professors could work together, at least sometimes. Though they often voted on opposite sides, they also bonded over fish fries funded over fish fries and a regular bipartisan poker game.


OBAMA: And we didn't call each other idiots or fascists who were trying to destroy America because then we'd have to explain why we were playing poker or having a drink with an idiot or a fascist who was trying to destroy America.

HORSLEY: The Illinois legislature has its own divisions. At times during his speech, Obama joked it was like looking out at a State of the Union audience - Democrats on their feet cheering, Republicans sitting on their hands. But for the most part, he says, lawmakers here exhibit the kind of respect and common sense that's so often missing from our national politics. The president suggested a few systemic remedies - limiting gerrymandering and secret money, making it easier, not harder, for people to vote. But beyond those mechanical fixes, Obama says we also have to change the culture of our politics, to stop rewarding the most strident voices and recognize that compromise is not the same as selling out.


OBAMA: In a big, complicated democracy like ours, if we can't compromise, by definition we can't govern ourselves.

HORSLEY: Obama says partisans who brag about refusing to cut deals simply block what most Americans would regard as actual progress - fixing roads, educating kids, passing budgets. At that line, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle here in the statehouse stood and applauded. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Springfield, Ill. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
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