By Dave Andrusko
As do all presidents, Barack Obama, one month into the final month of his final term, is doing his best to write the script for how his two administrations will eventually be judged by history.
Part of that campaign was a speech delivered Wednesday in Springfield, Illinois, followed by an official White House transcript of a discussion he had with former Illinois state Sen. Kirk Dillard, former Illinois state Sen. Denny Jacobs, and former Illinois state Sen. Larry Walsh that appeared today. Obama had been a state Senator from Illinois from January 1997 until elected to the United States Senate in November 2004.
The address in Springfield was nine years to the day when Obama declared his candidacy for the presidency outside the Old State Capitol building. There was a lot of nostalgia and finger-pointing, typical for Mr. Obama, with a dash here and there of personal responsibility (“maybe I could have done that a little better, or, maybe I should have reached out to that person more effectively”) so no one could say he thought he was totally blameless.
Here’s the opening for the Washington Post’s story:
President Obama returned to the place where he launched his first White House bid and delivered an impassioned and personal speech in which he asked, occasionally even pleaded, with his fellow citizens for a more civil and respectful political debate.
Obama warned Wednesday that Americans’ sense of unity and common purpose was being “threatened by a poisonous political climate that pushes people away from participating in public life. It turns folks off. It discourages them and makes them cynical.”
According to the Post’s David Nakamura and Greg Jaffe, “The symbolic setting in the ornate chamber, with a portrait of Abraham Lincoln on the wall, made clear that this president, in his final year, will not be content to sit on the sidelines of the race to replace him. Although he has remained cautious about engaging directly in the day-to-day 2016 campaign, notably declining to make an endorsement in the Democratic primary, Obama has sought to counter critiques of his record by highlighting progress of his agenda, including the economic recovery, expansion of health care coverage and combating climate change.”
#1. There was much conversation in the private meeting about ObamaCare and especially how it came to be passed. Mr. Obama was given the opportunity to explain why only Democrats voted for his “signature domestic” accomplishment: “Kirk thinks that Obamacare is a lightning rod for partisan fury because of the way it was passed. And I wonder what you think of that.”
To listen to Obama, he was the model of bipartisan compromise–it was the Republican “base” that explains the opposition of Republicans in Congress, not that they honestly disagreed. Later, speaking about another hugely controversial issue, President Obama said, “And there’s never been an issue in Washington that I haven’t been willing to take a half loaf or a quarter loaf.”
This is not a half-truth or even a quarter-truth.
#2. In his speech President Obama declared, “We can’t move forward if all we do is tear each other down,” adding, “There’s still a yawning gap in the magnitude of our challenges we face and the smallness of our politics.” This from a man who habitually mocks Republicans and belittles the reasons they fight against him.
For example, in their story Nakamura and Jaffe cautiously observe
Obama’s bid to shape the national debate will test his own willingness to temper his rhetoric, which has flared up at times when he has addressed Democratic supporters. Last November, for example, the president ribbed Republican presidential candidates for complaining about tough questions from CNBC moderators of a GOP debate.
“They say, ‘When I talk to Putin, he’s going to straighten out. …’ And then it turns out they can’t handle a bunch of CNBC moderators?” Obama said during a fundraising stop at Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York. “If you can’t handle those guys, I don’t think the Chinese and the Russians are going to be too worried about you.”
Asked if Obama would pledge not to attack Republicans, White House spokesman Eric Schultz said Wednesday: “The combative nature of our politics is not new. That goes back centuries. … What I do think the president will discuss is over the past few years our political system has become more polarized.”
So, again, except for a tiny nod here and there, Mr. Obama knows he is blameless. When he goes on the attack, it’s not furthering polarization but merely a reflection of “the combative nature of our politics.” And
#3. Speaking of President Lincoln, someone at the private meeting asked this:
Q: Is it possible for you before the end of your term, the end of your presidency, to become that figure you were in 2004? Those ideas that you outlined about we’re not as divided as our politics suggest? Do you believe there are things that you can do to bring that about before the end of your presidency? Or do you think you’re more paving the way for the next President?
THE PRESIDENT: My hope is, is that I help create a tone for the next President. I suspect that when I’m done being President, suddenly people will start saying, oh, that guy, he wasn’t a bad guy. (Laughter.) Because you’re not subject to the daily pummeling that you are when you have the incredible privilege of being in office. And I think that’s okay.
That was the other point that I wanted to make in the speech at the Capitol was this is not new. You look at what they said about Lincoln, you look at what they said about Jefferson — some of our most revered Presidents were hugely polarizing. And people cussed them and called them everything but a child of God.
So, once he is no longer president, people will suddenly find that Mr. Obama “wasn’t a bad guy.” And perhaps that he possessed at least one Lincolnesque quality: President Lincoln, like President Obama, was “highly polarizing.” Does anything need to be said about the absurdity of that comparison?
Finally, Nakamura and Jaffe add
Yet Obama’s return to the state assembly also highlighted how the president, by his own admission, has fallen short of his goals. If a core promise of Obama’s 2008 campaign was to bridge the political divide in Washington, those divisions have only appeared to have grown worse, contributing to the dysfunction in the nation’s capital. In his State of the Union address last month, Obama said one of the biggest regrets of his presidency was that “the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better.”
When talking about “polarizing” presidents, someone added Harry Truman’s name.
Too bad someone didn’t remind him that this is the same President Truman who had a sign on his desk in the Oval Office that read, “The buck stops here.”