Obama said at a memorial service in the Capitol's Statuary Hall that while he didn't know Foley, who died Oct. 18 at age 84, personally, he "admired him from afar."
"Thanks to Tom, more children get a head start on success in school and in life," the president said. "More seniors receive better health care. More families breathe easier because they know their country will be there for them in times of need. And all of them -- all of us -- are indebted to that towering man from Spokane."
Foley represented the state of Washington in the House from 1965 to 1995, becoming speaker in 1989. He later served as ambassador to Japan.
Obama said it was Foley's tenacity and other character traits that led him to become the first lawmaker from west of the Rockies to take on the role of House speaker.
"It was his hard work, his deep integrity, his powerful intellect, and, as [former House Minority Leader] Bob Michel [R-Ill.] so eloquently and movingly stated, his ability to find common ground with his colleagues across the aisle," the president said. "And it was his personal decency that helped him bring civility and order to a Congress that demanded both -- and still does.
"Which brings me to a final point: At a time when our political system can seem more polarized and more divided than ever before, it can be tempting to see the possibility of bipartisan progress as a thing of the past -- old school, as Bob said. It can be tempting to wonder if we still have room for leaders like Tom; whether the environment, the media, the way that districts are drawn and the pressures that those of us in elected office are under somehow preclude the possibility of that brand of leadership. Well, I believe we have to find our way back there."
Those attending the service included Foley's wife Heather, former President Bill Clinton, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, Vice President Joe Biden, former Vice President Walter Mondale, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.