Mitchell: Obama’s look back is also a way forward

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President Barack Obama shakes hands with Gov. Bruce Rauner after speaking to the General Assembly on Wednesday. | AP Photo

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If gray hair indicates wisdom, President Barack Obama has learned a lot since he jumped into a presidential race nine years ago.

His once dark, close-cropped hair is now heavily speckled with silver, a testament to the toll being the most powerful man in America takes on you.

Yet despite the many political battles won and lost since Obama took office, Washington hasn’t caused him to forsake his vision of a more civil and cooperative American politic.

With the TV cameras now focused on a primary election cycle that is dominated by a bombastic billionaire and a media determined to report every rude word out of his mouth, Obama’s message of political civility is even more important today than it was nine years ago.

While thousands of ordinary people braved the freezing temperatures to cheer Obama’s presidential announcement speech in 2007, it was Illinois’ political elite that Obama was trying to influence on Wednesday.

Obama told humorous stories about his early days in the General Assembly and the challenges he faced as a freshman legislator, but his real message amounted to a “shaming” of both parties.

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He even called out one person by name — state Rep. Ken Dunkin (D-Chicago) — whose feud with Speaker Michael Madigan has injected the racially charged accusation of “plantation” politics into the budget impasse debate, and has resulted in Dunkin being labeled a traitor by his own party.

Ironically, while Obama credits his time in the General Assembly with teaching him how to “disagree without being disagreeable,” Springfield is locked in a stalemate that is turning politicians of the same party against each other.

Ever the optimist, Obama told his former colleagues finding common ground doesn’t make someone a “sellout” to his or her own party.

That sentiment made Dunkin jump straight out of his seat.

“We’ll talk later Dunkin. You just sit down,” Obama said, causing legislators to break into howls of laughter.

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Obama’s appearance before the General Assembly was much like that of a school principal that fleshes out a problem without appearing to take sides.

The president drew from the relationships he said he formed during his time in the General Assembly to make a case for the civility that eluded him in Washington.

“We actually had a lot in common. We cared about our communities. . . . We wouldn’t bend on our most deeply held principals. We were practical when we needed to be. We could fight like heck on one issue then shake hands on the next,” Obama said.

Obviously, there’s not much camaraderie across party lines in Springfield these days.

Emil Jones, the former Senate president who considered himself Obama’s political godfather, said while he hopes Obama’s visit “can make a difference,” he isn’t hopeful.

“The issues that the governor is tying to the budget are something that Democrats and some Republicans don’t agree with,” Jones said.

“So long as the governor continues to push that type of issue and tie it to the budget, then he has a problem.”

But it is not the governor’s problem alone.

As Obama noted in his remarks: “[E]ven as we change the way the system works, we also have the responsibility to change the way that we as elected officials and as citizens work together, because this democracy only works when we get both right.”

That’s a message the governor and legislators need to take to heart.

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