Admitting failings, Obama urges end to partisanship

Springfield (United States) (AFP) - Barack Obama returned Wednesday to the city where his White House journey began, making the case for less fractious politics while admitting he had failed to narrow the partisan divide.

Making a nostalgia-laden trip to his old stomping ground in Springfield, Illinois, Obama decried "extreme voices" that have only grown more shrill during his presidency and in the race to succeed him.

"We've got to build a better politics, one that's less of a spectacle and more of a battle of ideas," he told state legislators who were once his colleagues.

It was in Springfield nine years ago to the day that Obama announced he was running for president.

Then, the young raven-haired senator pitched himself, above all, as an outsider who could soothe divisive partisan politics.

"You believe we can be one people, reaching for what's possible, building that more perfect union," he told the bundled-up crowd.

Obama's remarks were delivered from the same spot where Abraham Lincoln -- that great unifier -- declared "a house divided against itself cannot stand."

Nearly a decade on, Obama admitted the picture was grim.

"The tone of our politics hasn't gotten better since I was inaugurated. In fact, it's gotten worse," Obama said.

"There is still this yawning gap between the magnitude of our challenges and the smallness of our politics."

Obama sought to recall his time in the divided Illinois state legislature when bipartisan bills could be passed.

"We didn't call each other idiots or fascists," he said.

But as if to reinforce the depth of current partisanship, Republican and Democratic lawmakers in the chamber applauded in party blocs when their pet issue was raised.

At one point a clearly irked Obama declared: "sit down, Democrats!"

Back in Washington, Republicans -- who now control Congress -- questioned why Obama had himself not acted in a more bipartisan manner and why he waited until the last year of his presidency to give the speech.

They accuse him of governing by "pen and phone" using executive orders to bypass congressional opposition and mustering partisan coalitions rather than reaching across the aisle.

"The central premise of the Obama presidency was to unite the country, and that's been an unquestionable failure," said a spokesman for House Speaker Paul Ryan.

- 'Corrosive influence of money' -

Obama's remarks came a day after voters in New Hampshire cast their ballots for the next presidential nominees.

On the campaign trail, Republicans and Democrats -- divided enough within their parties -- have shed any pretense of working with the other side.

But Obama tried to put today's challenges in the context of past divisions and debates.

"Vice President Aaron Burr literally killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel," he said, joking that Lincoln was described by foes as the "obscene ape of Illinois" and "a facetious pettifogger."

Obama also outlined measures that he said could ease the enmity, including to reduce the "corrosive influence of money in our politics"

"I don't believe that money is speech. Or that political spending should have no limits," he said, backing a constitutional amendment to that end.

He also called for an end to gerrymandering that makes electoral districts safe for one party or the other, and for more participatory democracy.

"If 99 percent of us voted it wouldn't matter how much the one percent spent on elections."

But the realities of American politics remain stark, fundraising is essential and party turnout is often more important than winning over new voters.

After leaving Springfield, Obama is set to jet to California for a series of Democratic fundraisers, where it is normally good for business to take a few jabs at Republicans.