February 10, 2007 was a numbingly cold, interminably long, logistically daunting and incredibly exciting day.
Barack Obama, a freshman U.S. senator and former Illinois state legislator, stood outside the Old State Capitol in Springfield, where Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous “House Divided” speech in 1858, and announced his campaign for president.
I was the political reporter at ABC 7 back then, so I was covering the event, which meant standing out in the cold for hours before the speech, recording a story afterward for transmission back to Chicago, then joining a media horde on a charter flight to Iowa, where we reported live from electrifying Obama rallies.
The “Hope and Change” campaign was off and running.
Last week, nine years later to the day, President Obama returned to Springfield to reminisce about his state Senate years—1997 to 2004—when politics was partisan and ideological, like it is now, but not as rancorous or vitriolic.
Battles, yes. But also, eventually, compromise, something that’s missing today.
I watched the President’s speech to the General Assembly on TV in the comfort of my Better Government Association office in Chicago, with no deadlines to meet and plenty of time to reflect on the message.
Related Article: BGA Sets Springfield Priorities As Governor Addresses Lawmakers
Obama’s “lecture”—he was more professor than politician—didn’t name names, but the message and its targets were obvious.
To Governor Bruce Rauner: Stop castigating and vilifying public employee unions and House Speaker Michael Madigan if you want to get something done.
To Madigan: Legislating requires compromise, so find a few things on the governor’s “turnaround agenda” you can support, at least incrementally, and round up the votes.
Not profound, but practical.
“We wouldn’t bend on our most deeply held principles,” Obama told his former colleagues, “but we were willing to forge compromises in pursuit of a larger goal.
“We could fight like heck on one issue and then shake hands on the next. So when I hear voices in either party boast of their refusal to compromise as an accomplishment…I’m not impressed.
“All that does is prevent…actual accomplishments like fixing roads, educating kids, passing budgets, cleaning our environment, making our streets safe.”
Hard to argue with, and the timing is perfect because on Wednesday the governor is scheduled to present lawmakers with a state budget for the fiscal year that begins in July.
That’s ironic because Illinois still doesn’t have a budget for the current fiscal year, which began last July.
Why? The governor won’t consider the higher taxes Madigan favors to fund state programs and services, and pay overdue bills, unless the speaker accepts some of Rauner’s proposals for a government makeover.
Rauner has an opportunity this week to heed Obama’s advice and make a fresh start by proposing a plan for balancing both budgets—this year and next— with a combination of spending cuts and revenue increases, and by clarifying his makeover demands.
Madigan can make his fresh start by listening with an open mind.
The president put it this way: “Rather than accept the notion that compromise is a sellout to one side, we’ve got to insist on the opposite—that it can be a genuine victory that means progress for all sides.”
Pie in the sky? Pipe dream? Fantasy trip? Perhaps.
But that’s what a lot of people said about that frigid February day in ‘07, when a relatively unknown African American politician from Chicago had the audacity to declare his candidacy for President.
So maybe there’s still hope for an attitude change in Springfield.