Do President Obama’s problems with the Republican Party have their roots here in Illinois? Specifically, did the Republicans in Springfield not prepare him for the kind of Republicans he has to deal with in Washington, D.C.?
Obama could work with the Republicans in Illinois. When he was elected to the state senate, in 1996, the state had a Republican governor, Jim Edgar. Edgar supported abortion rights, knowing his party couldn’t win without votes in the Chicago suburbs. Since leaving the governorship, Edgar has spoken in favor of Gov. Pat Quinn’s 2-point income tax increase. He has no use for the Tea Party movement or the talk radio hosts who fuel its resentment.
“People listen to this stuff over and over, and they think it’s all true,” Edgar told The New York Times. “And they get very angry.”
Edgar signed Obama’s first bill, an ethics reform package that limited Springfield fundraisers and gifts that lobbyists could give legislators.
Then came George Ryan, who supported gay rights and opposed the death penalty. When Ryan announced he wouldn’t seek re-election, he slammed the right wing of his party. During his last year in the state senate, Obama collaborated on a death penalty reform bill with Sen. Kirk Dillard -- an Edgar protégé -- and Sen. Ed Petka, who was willing to compromise even though, as a prosecutor, he’d earned the nickname “Electric Ed.”
Obama was not prepared for the intransigence of Southern Republicans because there were few or no Southern Republicans in the legislature during his years there, and they were not the dominant wing of their party. Most legislators from Southern Illinois are Democrats. The Southern radicalism that motivates the Tea Party movement was absent from the Illinois General Assembly in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Obama made a strategic error by failing to negotiate a debt ceiling increase with the Republicans when he agreed to extend the Bush tax cuts. He probably couldn’t have imagined that the Tea Party would take the government to the brink of default before agreeing to a deal.
When Obama was running for president, some commentators didn’t think he was ready for the big leagues because he had spent most of his political career as a state senator. But maybe it wasn’t the office he held that didn’t prepare him for Washington. Maybe it was where he held that office.
Buy this book! Ward Room blogger Edward McClelland's book, Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President , is available Amazon. Young Mr. Obama includes reporting on President Obama's earliest days in the Windy City, covering how a presumptuous young man transformed himself into presidential material. Buy it now!