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Obama Seeks National Unity             02/10 06:20

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- Nine years ago to the day, Barack Obama stood before the 
Old State Capitol in Springfield and announced his run for president, declaring 
that "the ways of Washington must change." On Wednesday, Obama returns to the 
Illinois capital at the twilight of his political career, pleading once again 
for the type of national unity that has eluded him as president.

   Obama's speech to the Illinois General Assembly is a homecoming rich with 
nostalgia, as the president retraces steps he might have walked two decades ago 
as a young state senator from Chicago. White House aides said Obama wanted to 
return to the place his career started to discuss how the U.S. can "build a 
better politics" in which Americans aren't so starkly divided by race, religion 
or political party.

   It's a goal that Obama readily concedes he was unable to achieve during two 
terms in the White House.

   In his final State of the Union address last month, Obama lamented that 
rancor and suspicion in Washington had gotten worse, not better, since his 
election. Rarely one to admit defeat, Obama called it "one of the few regrets" 
of his presidency.

   "There's no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might 
have better bridged the divide," Obama said.

   Obama's short stop in Springfield comes at the start of a weeklong trip to 
California, where he will raise money for Democrats and crack jokes on "The 
Ellen DeGeneres Show." If tradition holds, he'll also squeeze in a few rounds 
of golf.

   On Monday, Obama will host leaders of 10 Asian countries for a two-day 
summit at the famed Sunnylands estate. As part of his campaign to expand U.S. 
influence in Asia, Obama established a precedent of attending the Association 
of Southeast Asian Nations confab every year, and decided to bring the leaders 
to home turf in his final year.

   In Springfield, Obama will call for making it easier to vote and embrace "a 
politics of hard-won hope," the White House said --- themes that animated his 
longshot campaign for president. When Obama entered the race, he was a 
first-term U.S. senator largely unknown to the American people.

   "This campaign has to be about reclaiming the meaning of citizenship, 
restoring our sense of common purpose, and realizing that few obstacles can 
withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change," Obama said in 
2007.

   In many ways, those obstacles are more arduous now than ever.

   In the presidential campaign to succeed Obama, Republicans are arguing about 
whether to ban Muslims from the U.S. and trading personal epithets barely 
suitable to print. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders is calling for 
political revolution fueled by animosity toward corporate interests.

   And on issue after issue, Obama's agenda has been thwarted by stark 
disagreements with Republicans over the government's role, leading Obama to act 
unilaterally in ways his opponents say is fit for a dictator. So disinclined 
were congressional Republicans to entertain Obama's ideas this year that they 
refused to hold a hearing on his final budget, breaking with decades of 
tradition.

   So there's more than a hint of irony in Obama's appeal for Americans to 
start working together, Illinois Republicans said.

   "I don't know who in Washington would look and say, 'Hey, follow our model 
in Washington. We're really working well,' " Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner said 
last week.

   Obama returns to a statehouse that has seen its share of turmoil since he 
last served there in 2004.

   In the past decade, Illinois has seen two governors convicted of corruption 
and later sent to prison --- including Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich, 
currently serving time in a federal prison for trying to sell the U.S. Senate 
seat that Obama vacated when he became president.

   Meanwhile, Democrats who control both chambers have been butting heads with 
Rauner since the Republican and former businessman took office last year. The 
two sides have yet to approve a budget more than eight months into the fiscal 
year, prompting massive cuts to higher education and social service programs. 
Nor have they managed to accomplish much of anything else.

   Elected officials will make up the bulk of Obama's audience along with 
invited guests, the Illinois House Speaker's office said. Though the public 
won't be allowed to attend, Obama planned to visit later Monday with a group of 
supporters and volunteers gathered elsewhere to watch his speech.


(KA)


 
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