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White House, February 10, 2016: Remarks by the President in Address to the Illinois General Assembly
As President Obama is in his last year of office, he is making even more memorable speeches that reflect on the his term in office. His speech to the Illinois General Assembly is one of those speeches where he reminisces about his term as a State Senator and working across the aisle to get compromises on differing views. It has lots in it, but I just want to extract a few paragraphs that relate to our current political discourse in our country:
"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.
"And we wouldn’t bend on our most deeply held principles, but we were willing to forge compromises in pursuit of a larger goal. We were practical when we needed to be. We could fight like heck on one issue and then shake hands on the next.
"And I learned by talking to your constituents that if you were willing to listen, it was possible to bridge a lot of differences. I learned that most Americans aren’t following the ins and outs of the legislature carefully, but they instinctively know that issues are more complicated than rehearsed sound bites; that they play differently in different parts of the state and in the country. They understand the difference between realism and idealism; the difference between responsibility and recklessness. They had the maturity to know what can and cannot be compromised, and to admit the possibility that the other side just might have a point.
"And today that kind of citizenship is threatened by a poisonous political climate that pushes people away from participating in our public life. It turns folks off. It discourages them, makes them cynical. And when that happens, more powerful and extreme voices fill the void. When that happens, progress stalls. And that’s how we end up with only a handful of lobbyists setting the agenda. That’s how we end up with policies that are detached from what working families face every day. That’s how we end up with the well-connected who publicly demand that government stay out of their business but then whisper in its ear for special treatment.
"So when I hear voices in either party boast of their refusal to compromise as an accomplishment in and of itself, I’m not impressed. All that does is prevent what most Americans would consider actual accomplishments -- like fixing roads, educating kids, passing budgets, cleaning our environment, making our streets safe.
"So when either side makes blanket promises to their base that it can’t possibly meet -- tax cuts without cuts to services -- “everything will be fine, but we won’t spend any money” -- war without shared sacrifice -- “we’re going to be tough, but don’t worry, it will be fine” -- union bashing or corporate bashing without acknowledging that both workers and businesses make our economy run -- that kind of politics means that the supporters will be perennially disappointed. It only adds to folks’ sense that the system is rigged. It’s one of the reasons why we see these big electoral swings every few years. It’s why people are so cynical.
"Now, the more Americans use their voice and participate, the less captive our politics will be to narrow constituencies. No matter how much undisclosed money is spent, no matter how many negative ads are run, no matter how unrepresentative a district is drawn, if everybody voted, if a far larger number of people voted, that would overcome in many ways some of these other institutional barriers. It would make our politics better.
"Rather than accept the notion that compromise is a sellout to one side, we’ve got to insist on the opposite -- that it can be a genuine victory that means progress for all sides.
"And maybe, most of all, whenever someone begins to grow cynical about our politics, or believes that their actions can’t make a difference or it’s not worth participating in, we’ve got to insist, even against all evidence to the contrary, that in fact they can make a difference. And in this job of being a citizen of the United States of America, that’s a big deal. It's something we should revere and take seriously.
"Nine years to the day that I first announced for this office, I still believe in that politics of hope. And for all the challenges of a rapidly changing world, and for all the imperfections of our democracy, the capacity to reach across our differences and choose that kind of politics -- not a cynical politics, not a politics of fear, but that kind of politics -- sustained over the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime, that’s something that remains entirely up to us."
There is, of course, much more in this speech. I have just extracted a few paragraphs that resonated with me. There are lots of points of humor and laughter, and is probably better viewed than read. He was interrupted several times by applause. It was Obama at his best.