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Feb 10, 3:55 AM EST

In Illinois, Obama to plead for a unity that's eluded him


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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.

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Associated Press writers Sara Burnett in Chicago and Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.

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