President Barack Obama receives a standing ovation before addressing the Illinois General Assembly in Springfield.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press
February 11, 2016

Will Obama's Belief In Politics Of 'Hope' Spur Action In Illinois?

On a freezing February day in 2007, President Barack Obama announced his bid for the nation's highest office in front of the Old State Capitol in downtown Springfield -- the place where Abraham Lincoln gave his historic "House Divided" speech. At the time, Obama called for hope and change. Nine years later -- to the very day -- Obama came back to Springfield. In his last year as president, he says he believes in the "politics of hope."

The themes of Obama's speech yesterday echoed what he'd said nine years ago, back when his hair hadn't yet gone gray.

We’ve got to build a better politics -- one that’s less of a spectacle and more of a battle of ideas; one that’s less of a business and more of a mission; one that understands the success of the American experiment rests on our willingness to engage all our citizens in this work," he said. "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."

This time, though, Obama spoke before a joint session of the Illinois legislature at its current state capitol -- the very building that houses a state government that epitomizing the polarization the President was in town to decry.

A chasm between Illinois' Republican Governor, Bruce Rauner, and the Democrats who hold strong majorities in the legislature, is so deep, the state has gone 225 days without a budget, and counting. Obama only hinted at this divide in Illinois.

Though he was upfront in admitting Washington D.C. is no paragon of cooperation. "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."

The President got nostalgic about it: He reminisced about going to fish-fries, visiting union halls, and playing a bipartisan poker game with other state legislators during his time in Springfield, and said those relationships laid a foundation of respect, which gave way to progress.

"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," he said, prompting laughter.

It was clear that Obama felt at home and at ease. Before his speech, he stopped for soup at a favorite sandwich shop downtown, one state representative said that although she hadn't seen Obama in years, he'd noticed she'd lost weight, and the President was comfortable enough to continually go off script during his address, like when lawmakers stood, clapped or even shouted in reaction to what he said.

Most notably, that occurred after Rep. Ken Dunkin loudly said "that's right" when Obama said "Where I've got an opportunity to find some common ground, that doesn't make me a sellout to my own party."

Obama responded back saying, "We'll talk later, Dunkin."

Democrats wildly clapped, and rose from their seats.

"This is what happens, everybody starts cherry-picking," Obama said to laughter, more of which came when he added, "One thing I've learned is folks don't change."

Dunkin has gotten a reputation in some corners - namely that of his fellow House Democrats -- as a "sellout." The Chicago Democrat has sided with the Republican governor on a couple of close, controversial votes. Dunkin's fellow Democrats are flaming mad about it. As Dunkin attempts to fight off a primary challenge, he's so far received a half-million dollars of support from a conservative organization with ties to Gov. Rauner.

While most Illinois residents, and certainly a national audience, may not know the backstory, it's certainly interesting that the President is up enough on Illinois politics that he apparently does.

Rep. Dunkin is a Chicago Democrat who's sided with the Republican governor on a couple of close, controversial votes. Dunkin's fellow Democrats are flaming mad about it. As he attempts to fight off a primary challenge, he's so far received a half-million dollars of support from a conservative organization with ties to Gov. Rauner.

That this spontaneously arose during a speech in which the President called on politicians to bridge their divides shows the personal dynamics, the campaign money, and the ideological battles that all come into play.

Illinois' feuding top leaders all had a front row seat for the hour-long speech.

After, the Governor didn't have much to say about it; when asked he only said "good speech, good speech" before walking away (Rauner will have to give a major speech of his own, when he gives his budget address next week).

Senate President John Cullerton -- who met privately with Obama Wednesday morning -- has high hopes that lawmakers will take the President's message to heart, and that it could move negotiations along on a budget.

"I think it'll kind of make it ... really kind of embarrass people into not being so .... so, stuck in their ways, you know?" he said, "And hope that -- we still have a big gap to close, but if people (as I've been trying to do, by the way since I've been here) to try to do bring people together and try to pass some legislation."

Republicans by and large weren't quite that optimistic.

"I think you can never have enough reminders of the importance of coming back to a respectful tone. It's not going to change over night, the President acknowledged that," Rep. Tom Demmer, R-Dixon, said.

"I think we need to take his remarks today, and realize that we do need to work together to try and get things done. But is this going to move us off the dime a little bit on budget negotiations? I don't think so," Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, said.

"Politicians have a tendency to make really good speeches, right? We have a tendency to talk the talk. It's walking the walk that really vexes many politicians," said Sen. Sam McCann, R-Carlinville.

But most Republicans  -- including Demmer, Butler and McCann -- also said they appreciated the overall theme of Obama's remarks, and are open to some of his specific suggestions.

The President offered ideas for moving past today's fractured, media-driven, ultra-polarized politics -- like getting a handle on campaign contributions. As an Illinois voter and constituent, he endorsed legislation that's already been introduced in Springfield that would automatically register people to vote when they get or renew their driver's licenses.  He also called for moving politicians back to the middle by updating how Congressional districts are mapped -- a concept that Republicans, led by Gov. Rauner, support on the state level.

Whatever happens in Illinois, it seems, Obama may keep an eye on it, though by evening he'd once again boarded Air Force One and left Springfield.

He says this notion of building a new and better politics will be the focus for the remainder of his Presidency, and next year - when he goes back to having the title of "citizen."


Barack Obama
July 07, 2014

A Presidential Contest ... For Obama's Library

There are 13 presidential Libraries in the United States run by the National Archives, and when President Obama leaves office, the construction of the 14th library won't be far behind.

A nonprofit foundation created to fund and build the Obama presidential library is already beginning to mull proposals from contenders who'd like to be home to the facility.

Think of this fight over a presidential library like a boxing match with contenders in three corners of the ring — all looking to win the big prize and all claiming a connection to Obama.

In corner No. 1, it's the University of Hawaii. University President David Lassner says faculty started planning as soon as then-Sen. Obama became competitive in the 2008 primaries. Now backed by the state of Hawaii, the university is offering 8 acres of prime oceanfront property.

"Hawaii is incredibly proud of President Obama. He grew up here. He went to school here. His parents met here. And we see the center here in Hawaii as a way of celebrating that a kid from Hawaii can grow up to be president," Lassner says.

In corner No. 2, it's Columbia University in New York, where Obama received his bachelor's degree. No boasts from the university, just a statement that says Columbia is promoting a location on its new campus in West Harlem to further its mission of teaching, research and public service.

In corner No. 3, a group of jostling competitors from Chicago despite a plea from the mayor to present one unified bid. But they all agree that Obama's post-presidential legacy should take shape in the city where his political career flourished. The University of Illinois at Chicago stepped into the center of the ring when the first-round proposals were due.

UIC Chancellor Paula Allen-Meares held up one of its proposals — the result of a partnership between the university and community activists in North Lawndale, a struggling neighborhood littered with vacant lots on the city's west side. Robert Winn, a UIC vice president, said locating the library there would show the same audacity to dream big as Obama did when he decided to run for president.

"That we could put something here, that library, that can actually serve as the backbone of change," Winn said.

But it's crowded in the Chicago corner. Four other contenders are recommending sites on the city's South Side, including the University of Chicago, where Obama was a law professor for more than a decade. Susan Sher, who served in his administration, is running the university's library campaign. She says the university is recommending three sites, but its Hyde Park neighborhood, close to the President's Chicago home, is not one of them.

"Hyde Park is pretty bustling and landlocked but if you look at some of the neighboring communities, there's a fair amount of vacant land. The kind of investment that a library would be is one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities," Sher says.

Ben Hufbauer, a University of Louisville professor and author of a book about presidential libraries, says their economic influence can be substantial. He points to the Clinton Library in Little Rock, Ark.

"He placed it in a kind of depressed part of town," Hufbauer says. "It did spark a big building boom. That area is now a nice, prosperous touristy area."

And as the Barack Obama Foundation looks to winnow down the number of contenders in the ring for the second round, University of Hawaii President David Lassner, who's from Illinois, says he's willing to share a win:

"We would be happy to partner with another location that's selected by the president as well, including the great city of Chicago," Lassner says.

And Chicago contenders may consider all options, but ultimately it's up to the president and the first lady to decide where the archives of the Obama presidency will live. A final announcement is expected in early 2015.


June 16, 2014

UIC To Name Another Possible Site Of Obama Library

The University of Illinois-Chicago plans to announce a third potential site for its bid for the Obama Presidential Library.

The university said Sunday that it will announce the potential site at a news conference Monday morning.

The university says it will post its complete submission as a potential location for the library on its website. The school on the city's West Side is one of five Chicago locations hoping to become home to the library.

The two previous sites are on campus. The third will be west of campus.

The University of Chicago, Chicago State University, the Bronzeville neighborhood and a retail and residential development near Lake Michigan are also hoping to become the library's home.

New York City and Hawaii are also bidding to host the library.

NPR's Steve Inskeep (r) talks with President Barack Obama (l) on May 28, 2014.
May 28, 2014

America's Strength Extends Beyond Its Military, Obama Says

American leadership in the 21st century will be defined in part by the nation's military strength, "but only in part," President Obama said in an interview with NPR about his foreign policy priorities.

Echoing themes he expressed during a speech Wednesday to West Point graduates, Obama emphasized the importance of international norms and alliances in addressing challenges such as Russia, China and Syria.

While acknowledging that the world order is "changing very rapidly," Obama said that the United States is blessed with a growing economy and no prospect of war with another nation-state.

The country should not feel that it has to make a false choice between isolationism and retreat on one hand, or taking on all the world's problems as its own on the other, he said. Instead, the U.S. will remain not just engaged but will play a leading role in upholding American interests and values.

Extending the baseball metaphor he used last month to describe his foreign policy approach — which he referred to as a steady hitting of singles and doubles, with the occasional home run — Obama told NPR's Steve Inskeep, "Every once in a while, a pitch is going to come right over home plate that you can knock out for a home run, but you don't swing at every pitch."

Asked by Inskeep if his place in history could be summarized in a single sentence, as might be possible for predecessors such as Ronald Reagan or Abraham Lincoln, Obama said the country today is "fortunate in many ways.

"We don't face an existential crisis," Obama said. "We don't face a civil war. We don't face a Soviet Union that is trying to rally a bloc of countries that could threaten our way of life."

Obama said Americans can't be naive about the threats the country faces, but he maintained that the dangers posed by Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision to annex Crimea should not be exaggerated.

On the contrary, Obama argued that the U.S. had rallied international opinion and helped back Putin off the Ukrainian border.

"It's a mistake to think that somehow Mr. Putin reflected strength in this situation," Obama told Inskeep. "He was operating from a position of weakness. He felt as if he was being further and further surrounded by NATO members, folks who are looking west economically [and] from a security perspective."

Similarly, Obama expressed optimism that territorial conflicts between China and neighbors such as Japan and Vietnam can be resolved by following "basic international rules of the road."

Those rules — including vibrant trade and freedom of navigation — have aided China's rise, so that country has an interesting in upholding them, the president said.

America has no interest in impeding China's success, he suggested.

"China's going to be a dominant power in Asia — not the only one, but by virtue of its size and its wealth, it is going to be a great power nation," Obama said. "At some level, they're going to be a big dog in that neighborhood and we welcome China's peaceful rise."

White House officials have expressed a renewed interest in aiding "moderate" opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime. In his West Point address, Obama called on Congress to create a $5 billion counterterrorism fund that would, in part, deal with the military and humanitarian problems in Syria.

Ordinary Syrians — "farmers or dentists," Obama said — have an interest in ending human rights violations in their country. Their fighting strength has not matched that of "jihadists" but their capacity is growing, he said.

While the U.S. will work with them and other countries in the region, he warned that there will be limits to any American intervention.

"I still do not believe that American military actions can resolve what is increasingly a sectarian civil war," Obama told NPR. "What we don't want to do is set folks up for failure. What we don't want to do is make promises that we cannot keep."

Obama also expressed hopes that he would still be able to keep his long-ago campaign promise to shut the prison base at Guantanamo.

That is an especially important goal now, he said, as the nation's combat role winds down in Afghanistan — the conflict that gave rise to use of Guantanamo as a holding place for so-called enemy combatants.

"What I know is that we cannot in good conscience maintain a system of indefinite detention in which individuals who have not been tried and convicted are held permanently in this legal limbo outside this country," Obama said.

When Inskeep asked him whether he felt constrained in making foreign policy choices by the limited amount of time he'll command power, Obama said he was aware of the clock from his first day in the Oval Office.

"You don't walk into the presidency and completely remake the world and ignore history and ignore the problems that are already sitting there in the inbox," Obama said.

Having said that, Obama said he hopes to settle many items on his agenda — not just Guantanamo but the legal frameworks governing national security surveillance, the use of drone strikes and methods of combating terrorism in general — so that his successor will start off with a relatively clean slate.

"I'm confident that by the time I'm leaving the presidency," Obama said, "the next president will still have some tough choices to make, but I think they'll have a basis for making them that is consistent with our best traditions."

Portions of this interview will air Thursday on Morning Edition.

San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro is a rising star in the Democratic Party. He spoke at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., in 2012.
(J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
May 23, 2014

Obama Taps San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro For HUD Secretary

President Obama has been playing musical chairs with his Cabinet.

At the White House on Friday, Obama announced that he's chosen Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan to be his new budget director. Donovan would replace Sylvia Mathews Burwell, who's taking over the Department of Health and Human Services.

That leaves a vacancy atop the housing department, which the president plans to fill with an outsider: Julian Castro, the mayor of San Antonio and a rising star in the Democratic Party.

Castro would take over as HUD secretary at a time when the nation's housing market has been treading water.

There was some positive news this week about new and existing home sales inching up in April, but the overall spring selling season has been a disappointment. Housing does not look to be the engine of economic growth many forecasters had been hoping for.

That's a challenge to the secretary because HUD plays an important role in the housing market. Through the Federal Housing Administration, HUD guarantees more than 1 in 10 home loans. Guy Cecala, publisher of Inside Mortgage Finance, says FHA-backed loans can be a door opener, since they require a down payment of just 3.5 percent.

"It's considered the best option for first-time homebuyers. Given the fact that we're waiting for the housing market to recover, and we're trying to encourage first-time homebuyers, there's a lot of attention focusing on FHA."

Many lenders remain skittish about making home loans, partly out of fear that if those loans go bad, FHA and other government guarantors, like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, will come after the lender. As a result, White House economists argued in an op-ed this week, credit remains harder to come by than it should be, keeping millions of potential buyers out of the housing market. FHA has been working with lenders to address that, and has launched a pilot program to discount some of its own fees.

Of course, guaranteeing home loans is just one of many functions carried out by the sprawling $45 billion department Castro's been tapped to lead. HUD also provides rent subsidies and runs a slew of economic development programs.

Bruce Katz, who was chief of staff at HUD during the Clinton administration, says in order to do that successfully in this time of tight budgets, Castro will have to work with city and state governments, as well as the private sector.

"I think a former mayor, coming from San Antonio, which is a major metropolis, understands how cities work and how a federal government can leverage up those local resources and powers in a smart, strategic way."

Donovan earned high marks for his work at HUD, especially on federal recovery efforts in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Katz says Donovan pushed HUD to team up with agencies overseeing transportation, the environment and human services.

"When you think about the people who are most in need of housing, they're also in need of being close to work. They're also in need of child care. And I think Secretary Donovan was really at the vanguard of those kind of integrated approaches."

Now that Donovan has been tapped as White House budget director, he'll have a chance to extend his reach throughout the executive branch.


President Obama signs the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, as Attorney General Eric Holder and a bipartisan group of senators look on.
(Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
April 21, 2014

Obama Seeks Wider Authority To Release Drug Offenders

Attorney General Eric Holder announced Monday that the Obama administration is formulating new rules that would give it, and the president, far more latitude to pardon or reduce the sentences of thousands of drug offenders serving long federal prison sentences.

The move comes amid a broad national reconsideration of mandatory minimum sentences approved by Congress in 1986, when America's big cities were in the grip of a crack cocaine-fueled crime wave.

"The White House has indicated it wants to consider additional clemency applications, to restore a degree of justice, fairness, and proportionality for deserving individuals who do not pose a threat to public safety," Holder said in an online video statement released midday Monday.

"The Justice Department is committed to recommending as many qualified applicants as possible for reduced sentences," he said.

In anticipation of a massive influx of applications from federal prisoners seeking clemency or a reduction in their drug-related prison terms, the Justice Department will create a team of lawyers with backgrounds in prosecution and defense, the administration says, to review the applications.

Further detail about "expanded criteria" used to review the particular situations of drug offenders seeking relief through the program will be released later this week, according the department.

The Justice Department has already held meetings with defense lawyers and interest groups in an effort to identify the cases of worthy prisoners who could qualify for clemency. The administration is looking at inmates who have "clean records, no significant ties to gangs or violence, and who are serving decades behind bars for relatively low-level offenses."

The administration's move Monday comes four years after Obama signed the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which was designed to reduce the disparity between sentencing rules for crack and powder cocaine. In a precursor to today's announcement, the president last December commuted the sentences of eight federal inmates serving long sentences – including six with life terms – for crack cocaine offenses.

At the time, Obama said that the inmates had been sentenced under an "unfair system" that meted out far longer sentences for crack cocaine than powder cocaine.

If sentenced under the current, post-2010 sentencing law, he said, "many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society."

Congress is currently discussing comprehensive, bipartisan legislation that would cut minimum sentences by half, give judges more sentencing discretion, and retroactively apply new crack cocaine sentencing standards to prisoners convicted under previous requirements.

One bill, sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, would cut by half the 5-, 10-, and 20-year minimums now required for first and second drug-sale offenses.

Holder announced last August that the Justice Department would not pursue mandatory minimum sentences in cases involving low-level, non-violent drug defendants. He followed with a set of guidelines for federal prosecutors.

In announcing the effort Monday, Holder says that there "are still too many people in federal prison who were sentenced under the old regime – and who, as a result, will have to spend far more time in prison than they would if sentenced today for exactly the same crime."

"This is simply not right," he said.

Some federal prosecutors have pushed back on efforts to change mandatory sentencing laws, arguing that they believe they are an effective tool in wringing out information involving important drug kingpin cases, or major murders.

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