SPRINGFIELD — Democrats and Republicans alike found things to cheer about, usually separately but occasionally together, in an hour-long statehouse speech by President Barack Obama on Wednesday.
The president was sometimes pointed, sometimes nostalgic and sometimes humorous, but focused largely on making a case for building a better form of politics, for seeking compromise in the name of getting the people’s work done.
“When I hear voices in either party boast of their refusal to compromise as an accomplishment in and of itself, I’m not impressed,” said the Democratic president, a former state and U.S. senator from Chicago who exactly nine years earlier announced in Springfield his first run for the nation’s highest office.
“All that does is prevent what most Americans consider actual accomplishments, like fixing roads, educating kids, passing budgets, cleaning our environment (and) making our streets safe,” Obama said to applause from lawmakers of both parties.
The remarks were aimed at an audience that included a legislature dominated by Democrats and a Republican governor who, together, are more than eight months into a fiscal year without a state budget and therefore leaving areas including higher education and many social services unfunded.
“Look, I am a progressive Democrat," the president said before reeling off a list things he said he believes in, with those items winning applause largely from the Democratic side of the House chamber. "I’m proud of that. I make no bones about it."
Still, said the president, “Where I’ve got an got an opportunity to find some common ground, that doesn’t make me a sellout to my own party.”
But there the president paused and injected a barb of his own, glancing at Democratic state Rep. Ken Dunkin of Chicago and adding, “Well, we’ll talk later Duncan. You just sit down.”
Dunkin angered many of his party mates in 2015 when he declined to support override attempts on a pair of hotly contested vetoes by Gov. Bruce Rauner, and has since been cast as too critical of his own party’s leaders and too cozy with the Republican governor.
Efforts to reach Dunkin for comment Wednesday evening were not successful.
But the president said it is Illinois that makes him believe a better kind of politics is possible, calling it “ this most-representative of states. A state of small towns and rich farmland and the world’s greatest city. A microcosm of America, where Democrats and Republicans and independents and good people of every ethnicity and every faith share certain bedrock values.”
Obama addressed several topics that he sees as steps to a better political and government culture, including more independent mapping of legislative districts, addressing the role of money in politics and increasing increasing voter participation by passing automatic voter registration.
Remapping reforms, the president said, tend “to be popular in states where Democrats have been drawing the lines among Republicans, and less popular among Republicans where they control drawing the lines. So let’s be clear here, nobody has got clean hands on this thing.”
“The fact is, today technology allows parties in power to precision-draw constituencies so that the opposition’s supporters are packed into as few districts as possible,” the president said.
“That’s why our districts are shaped like earmuffs or spaghetti,” he said. “It’s also how one party can get more seats even when it gets fewer votes.”
Although Rauner has been calling for political mapping reforms and said Tuesday he hoped the president would address the issue, the governor’s office did not offer a statement after the president’s speech.
State Sen. Kyle McCarter (R-54th District) after the speech issued a statement saying, “I agree with President Obama, Politicians should not pick their voters, voters should pick their politicians. The answer is an independent commission not influenced by politics and politicians looking out for themselves.”
McCarter, also now a candidate for the 15th Congressional seat, said he’d seen gerrymandering in play in that district.
Dennis FitzSimons, chairman of the Independent Maps coalition, said, “We are in agreement with President Obama who told the Illinois General Assembly: In America, politicians should not pick their voters, voters should pick their politicians.”
Sen. President John Cullerton (D-6th District) after the speech issued his own statement saying he’d been moved by the president’s remarks.
“As this chapter in his uniquely American story begins to draw to a close, I am left inspired by a message I first heard from a young community organizer seeking a seat in the Illinois Senate: that if we are to have a better country, we must never stop believing in a better country,” Cullerton said.