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Illinois Father, Son Have Had Front-row Seat for Obama's Political Journey


Robb Paul sees history every day.

It comes through the front door of his Prairie Archives Book Store, in Springfield’s Old State Capitol Mall. The original capitol, just across the street, is remembered most as the location for Abraham Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech in June 1858.

“Lincoln is a specialty of ours, absolutely,” said Robb, displaying one of the many old Springfield newspapers for sale in his store. One from the 1850s advertised Lincoln’s old law firm in the town.

“We’ve had more than our share of modern as well as historic politicians,” said John Paul, Robb’s father and business partner.

The current Illinois State Capitol, where President Barack Obama spoke to state lawmakers on Wednesday. (K. Farabaugh/VOA)

The current Illinois State Capitol, where President Barack Obama spoke to state lawmakers on Wednesday. (K. Farabaugh/VOA)

The Pauls have had a unique front-row seat on Barack Obama’s journey from Illinois state senator to president of the United States.

FILE - Then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., waves to spectators as he arrives to announce his candidacy for president of the United States at the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., Feb. 10, 2007.

FILE - Then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., waves to spectators as he arrives to announce his candidacy for president of the United States at the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., Feb. 10, 2007.

The trip literally began in front of their store, and the Pauls were present on the cold but sunny February day in 2007 when Obama made it official that he was a candidate for president.

“Pretty electric,” Robb Paul said. “We had 10,000 to 15,000 people just across the street here," near the original capitol. "This was a huge crowd with a tremendous amount of excitement.”

He fondly recalled the campaign signs and distinctly remembered the themes of “hope” and “change” not just in that cold February moment, but also in Obama’s return to Springfield the following summer, when he introduced Delaware Senator Joe Biden as his running mate.

Robb got caught up in the excitement and said he ultimately voted for Obama.

Feelings fade

But that was then.

Nine years later, Robb’s enthusiasm for Obama has faded. And the Prairie Archives Book Store is in some ways a business divided.

“We don’t argue politics,” John Paul said. “We discuss it in — I wouldn’t say scholarly, but a low-key fashion.”

“Like they say, it’s not polite to talk politics and religion,” Robb said.

But religion and politics are two of their top-sellers.

“People aren’t wishy-washy,” John said. “They either love him or they hate him. We hear both sides of the story.”

Coming home

On Wednesday, the ninth anniversary of the launch of his quest for national office, Obama returned to Springfield where his political career started to address lawmakers in the Illinois General Assembly, where he served as a state senator.

Robb Paul isn't the only one with misgivings.

“It’s not been a really pretty time in terms of American politics,” said Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois-Springfield. “It is clear that the era that he is in has a lot of partisan rancor, that there is not a lot of bipartisanship.”

President Barack Obama, accompanied by Senate Minority Whip Richard Durbin of Illinois, right, stops to greet Anna Moser, 9, and brother Grant Moser, 6, right, during an unscheduled stop to the Feed Store, a sandwich shop in Springfield, Ill., Feb. 10, 2016.

President Barack Obama, accompanied by Senate Minority Whip Richard Durbin of Illinois, right, stops to greet Anna Moser, 9, and brother Grant Moser, 6, right, during an unscheduled stop to the Feed Store, a sandwich shop in Springfield, Ill., Feb. 10, 2016.

That's something Obama is keenly aware of: “I had to acknowledge that one of my few regrets is my inability to reduce the polarization and meanness in our politics,” he said in his address in the Illinois State House Chamber. “I was able to be part of that here, and yet couldn’t translate it the way I wanted to into our politics in Washington.”

Yet, the current General Assembly has been unable to come up with a state budget, which has dominated local politics in Illinois.

"In a big, complicated democracy like ours, if we can't compromise, by definition, we can't govern ourselves,” Obama said. He said that when he was a state lawmaker, “we voted against each other all the time. And party lines held most of the time. But those relationships, the trust we built, meant that we came at each debate assuming the best in one another and not the worst.”

No compromise at bookstore

“He can’t do any worse than what we’re in already,” John said about Obama's effect on the budget impasse. “He’s got to be a help.”

President Barack Obama stops at the counter to place his order during an unscheduled visit to the Feed Store, a sandwich shop in Springfield, Ill., Feb. 10, 2016.

President Barack Obama stops at the counter to place his order during an unscheduled visit to the Feed Store, a sandwich shop in Springfield, Ill., Feb. 10, 2016.

“I’m not optimistic, not here in Illinois,” Robb Paul said. “I mean, we have so many problems, and we haven’t had a budget in so long.”

Robb said he was also concerned about the cost of Obama's visit to the city.

“If he could have just sent a letter, it would have saved a lot of money,” he said.

Redfield said he thought Obama’s Springfield visit might indicate that he's looking ahead to the end of his tenure in 2017.

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    Kane Farabaugh

    Kane Farabaugh is the Midwest Correspondent for Voice of America, where since 2008 he has established Voice of America's presence in the heartland of America.

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