Obama: 'One of My Few Regrets Is My Inability to Reduce the Polarization and Meanness in Our Politics'

By Susan Jones | February 11, 2016 | 6:47am EST
After a speech at the Illinois State Capitol, President Barack Obama stops at the Hoogland Center for the Arts in Springfield, Ill., Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016. Obama returned Wednesday to the Illinois capital where he launched a national political career based on “hope” and “change” and appealed for help ridding modern politics of “polarization and meanness” that “turns folks off” and discourages participation in civic life. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune via AP)

(CNSNews.com) - "There’s no doubt America is better off today than when I took office," President Obama told the Illinois State Senate on Wednesday, on a nostalgic trip back to the launchpad of his political ambitions.

"The fact is, we've gotten a heck of a lot done these past seven years, despite the gridlock." But the president apparently is troubled that the accomplishments he touted and the liberalism he advocates may be repudiated by an angry American electorate. He blames it on divisive "politics."

"[I]t's been noted often by pundits that the tone of our politics hasn’t gotten better since I was inaugurated, in fact it’s gotten worse; that there’s still this yawning gap between the magnitude of our challenges and the smallness of our politics. Which is why, in my final State of the Union address, and in the one before that, I had to acknowledge that one of my few regrets is my inability to reduce the polarization and meanness in our politics. I was able to be part of that here (in the Illinois Senate) and yet couldn’t translate it the way I wanted to into our politics in Washington."

Obama said the reason he cares about "fixing our politics" is because he's about to leave the presidency and become an ordinary citizen. "And as an American citizen, I understand that our progress is not inevitable — our progress has never been inevitable. It must be fought for, and won by all of us...It requires citizenship and a sense that we are one.

"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.

"That’s how our political system gets consumed by small things when we are a people that are called to do great things — to give everybody a shot in a changing economy; to keep America safe and strong in an uncertain world; to repair our climate before it threatens everything we leave for our kids.

"So that’s what’s on my mind as I come back to Illinois today. This is what will be a focus of mine over the course of this year and beyond: What can we do, all of us, together, to try to make our politics better? And I speak to both sides on this. As all of you know, it could be better, and all of you would feel prouder of the work you do if it was better."

Obama, noting that politicial strife is nothing new in the United States, offered the following suggestions to "make our politics better."

He made a plea for compromise and "finding common ground."

He urged an end to "the corrosive influence of money in our politics."

He wants to "rethink" the way congressional districts are drawn to eliminate gerrymandering.

He wants to "make voting easier," by allowing same-day registration and weekend voting hours for working people.

He wants civility in public discourse. "Rather than reward the most extreme voices, or the most divisive language, or who is best at launching schoolyard taunts, we should insist on a higher form of discourse in our common life, one based on empathy and respect," the president said, in a thinly veiled allusion to Donald Trump.

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