Takeaways from President Obama’s speech

Wednesday, on the ninth anniversary of his campaign announcement outside the Old State Capitol in Springfield, President Obama delivered an address to a joint session of the Illinois General Assembly.

It was a historic event, and an exciting one to witness in person — an excitement magnified by the president’s beautiful speech.

After seven years of a presidency marked by economic and geopolitical turmoil, intense partisan fighting and a striking record of accomplishment, President Obama returned to the themes that initially made him such a bright star on the national scene: he spoke about the relationship between a functional legislative process, a healthy political process and a sustainable democracy.

President Obama paid special attention to the questions of polarization, compromise, progress and core values. He stressed that in a democracy like ours, everyone needs to be willing to compromise if we want our system to survive, and he repeated several times that compromising to find common ground and move forward is not the same as selling out core values.

In other words, the president gave a speech that landed like a thunderbolt on the scorched earth of our 2016 Capitol.

I don’t think a participant in today’s Illinois state government today could listen to such a speech in good faith without engaging in some pretty serious self-examination. I’ve tried to do this, and I hope and suspect I’m not alone.

One thing I realize as I look at the last year through this lens is that I’ve become much angrier. Life in the legislature before 2015 was no picnic, and I was sometimes frustrated, disappointed or upset, but I was almost never angry. In this new world, that’s changed. I find myself angry at Gov. Rauner, angry at his agenda and angry about what’s being done to our state.

Every now and then my 7-year-old son asks me if I like the governor. I always explain that while I don’t really know him well, I’ve liked him just fine the few times we’ve met — but that I don’t like his ideas very much. If I’m going to be totally honest with myself, I should admit that my inner thoughts don’t always live up to those words.

Anger is not a useful place from which to compromise. I’m going to try to do a better job of setting an example for my children. As much as I may disagree with a policy proposal, I need to keep that disagreement focused on the idea, not the person.

I think that if all of us in Springfield endeavor to do this, it will help us move forward. But that isn’t enough. We also need to restore the crucial ingredient that’s so painfully lacking right now: trust. At this moment, the various parties don’t trust one another, and we don’t trust one another’s motives, either.

This is where President Obama’s point about the difference between compromising and selling out is so important. Gov. Rauner and I truly do have differences of core values. I believe very deeply that the things he most wants to accomplish would be destructive to our society — and, it seems, most of my colleagues in the General Assembly agree with me. That means we’re not about to reach an agreement on these questions, and therefore they’re not the most fruitful area to try to work on first.

But I have good news: there are lots of other important issues facing state government. Many of them are more amenable to agreement, and many of those agreements would require genuine compromise from all sides.

The list of such issues begins, of course, with the need to pass a balanced budget. Everyone should be willing to sit down and negotiate a balanced budget agreement, immediately and without preconditions. There surely couldn’t be a better trust-building exercise than that.

The opportunities don’t end there, though. Gov. Rauner has laid out a sprawling, ambitious agenda. Democrats have signaled an openness to certain elements of it, even voting for a variety of related bills. The governor has rejected those bills as inadequate. He’s entitled to that view, but he should make a counteroffer to keep the negotiation going.

Democrats have important reform ideas as well, such as repealing our bizarre constitutional provision that mandates a flat tax, changing our school funding formula and enacting automatic voter registration (as endorsed by the president in his speech). Gov. Rauner should view those proposals as further opportunities for compromise — after all, a healthy negotiation involves not only taking, but also giving.

Some will view this essay as a call for selling out. Perhaps some from my party will accuse me of selling out. Certainly others will suggest that by asking that we begin with the issues where agreement is most accessible, I am telling Gov. Rauner to sell out his values. After all, they might say, you can’t shake up Springfield if you’re focused on picking issues where you agree with the Democratic legislature.

To those voices, let me echo President Obama in quoting Adlai Stevenson’s beautiful observation that “patriotism is not a short, frenzied outburst of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.” Our democracy has many extraordinary features, but susceptibility to rapid radical change is not among them. (Indeed, this is itself an extraordinary and crucial feature of our democracy!)

Our state is crumbling around us. It needs our help. Let’s spend this February finding a single small thing we can agree on, and then accomplish it quickly. We can do more in March, and yet more in April. And who knows? Maybe by the end of 2018 we’ll all be surprised at how much good we’ve done — together, collaboratively.

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