When President Obama travels to Illinois this week to speak in front of the state legislature, it will be nine years to the day since he announced his bid for the presidency from the same spot.
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“By ourselves, this change will not happen. Divided, we are bound to fail,” Obama said in 2007 to the thousands of supporters gathered that blisteringly cold Saturday in Springfield. “But the life of a tall, gangly, self-made Springfield lawyer tells us that a different future is possible.”
Obama's nostalgic return to Springfield comes with a bittersweet reality check: by his own admission in his final State of the Union address last month, those hopes of a unified country during his tenure have failed to materialize.
“It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency,” Obama said. “That the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better.”
Nowhere is that divide felt more viscerally than where Obama began his legislative career.
“This is an unprecedented time for Illinois,” said David Yepsen, the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. “The bond rating is the worst in the country. There’s no budget. It’s grim times financially in the state and there’s a crisis going on in Chicago.”
The visit also comes the day after a decisive victory in New Hampshire for Sen. Bernie Sanders. Similar to Obama in 2008, Sanders has found popularity campaigning against Hillary Clinton with a populist message and his early rejection of the invasion of Iraq.
Yepsen said that while no reliable polls have been produced in Illinois to get a read of how the state's voters feel between Sanders and Clinton, income inequality continues to be a chief concern in the state.
The state could also be a crucial test to see whether Illinois voters will again connect to the candidate promising change by upending the “establishment.” Though a bleak editorial headline out Tuesday from the Chicago Tribune previewing Obama’s visit reads “No Hope Of Change In Illinois.”
“There’s going to be, in both parties, a primary that means something,” Yepsen said, noting that the state’s March primary often takes place when the Republican and Democratic fields are already settled.
According to the White House, President Obama’s message to the Illinois General Assembly will be “about what we can do, together, to build a better politics – one that reflects our better selves.”
Democratic strategist and ABC News contributor Donna Brazile said a reflection of Obama’s presidency shows a nation ready to move forward on progress already made in the nine years since Obama’s announcement.
“Bringing an economy back from the brink, providing millions access to health care, keeping the American auto industry alive, climate change, Iran accords, and much, much more,” Brazile said. “Americans are no longer looking in the rear view mirror, we turned a page, and it's time to write a new chapter."