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.He spent some time explaining that he has firm progressive beliefs, but is always searching for common ground with his opponents:
And it convinced me that if we just approached our national politics the same way the American people approach their daily lives – at the workplace, at the Little League game; at church or the synagogue – with common sense, and a commitment to fair play and basic courtesy, that there is no problem that we couldn’t solve together.
And that was the vision that guided me when I first ran for the United States Senate. That’s the vision I shared when I said we are more than just a collection of red states and blue states, but we are the United States of America. And that vision is why, nine years ago today, on the steps of the Old State Capitol just a few blocks from here, I announced my candidacy for President.
Now, over these nine years, I want you to know my faith in the generosity and the fundamental goodness of the American people has been rewarded and affirmed over and over and over again. I’ve seen it in the determination of autoworkers who had been laid off but were sure that they could once again be part of a great, iconic Americans industry. I’ve seen it in the single mom who goes back to school even as she’s working and looking after her kids because she wants a better life for that next generation. I’ve seen it the vision and risk-taking of small businessmen. I’ve seen it time and time again in the courage of our troops.
But it’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 and yet couldn’t translate it the way I wanted to into our politics in Washington.
And people ask me why I’ve devoted so much time to this topic. . . . The reason this is important to me is, next year I’ll still hold the most important title of all, and that's the title of 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, with the kind of patriotism that our fellow Illinoisan, Adlai Stevenson, once described not as a “short, frenzied outburst of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.” 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. . . .
So trying to find common ground doesn't make me less of a Democrat or less of a progressive. It means I’m trying to get stuff 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. 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. . . .His vision remains the same: the antidote to cynicism and corruption is 1) broad participation, 2) a civil, respectful discourse, and 3) compromise.
Our Founders trusted us with the keys to this system of self-government. Our politics is the place where we try to make this incredible machinery work; where we come together to settle our differences and solve big problems, do big things together that we could not possibly do alone. And our Founders anchored all this in a visionary Constitution that separates power and demands compromise, precisely to prevent one party, or one wing of a party, or one faction, or some powerful interests from getting 100 percent of its way.
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.
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.
I think Obama is the best president of my lifetime, and I suspect I may never see another who can so clearly articulate my best impulses. In his speeches, compromise and step-by-step progress seem noble and romantic. (Hillary can't do this, which is why she is so much less inspiring even though their politics are not very different.) Obama is a calm rationalist with a shining vision of the possible, and that is a very rare combination of traits.