The debt-ceiling fracas in Washington has finally ended. Among its many revelations is President Obama’s persistent identification of his leadership, in style and substance, with Abraham Lincoln’s. He hasn’t claimed he’s reached Lincoln’s stature; he’s just adopted Lincoln as a model he wants to follow.
When he came into office in January 2009, three weeks shy of Lincoln’s bicentenary, Obama spoke of Lincoln almost continuously, and it seemed to some he might be invoking the cherished hero’s name for political advantage.
In fact, Obama had started thinking and writing about Lincoln even before running for the U. S. Senate in 2004. That was three years before he declared his candidacy for the presidency on a freezing February day in Springfield, Illinois. Of course he hoped that appreciating Lincoln would help him politically, but there’s no reason to doubt Obama when he says he’s truly inspired by him.
A century and a half after Lincoln’s death, Obama does seem, under very different historical conditions, to have applied his general approach to governance: insist on reasoned argument as the basis for political debate, seek out bridges to your opponents, look for ways to advance the cause of equality in the long run when the path to it is blocked in the immediate.
During the debt-and-deficit imbroglio, Obama brought Lincoln into the fray as a model compromiser. He said today’s Congressional Republicans should follow Lincoln’s lead, giving up some of what they wanted (as Obama was doing himself) in order to obtain a desperately needed debt-ceiling extension.
As it happens, he muddied matters in this instance by citing the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1863 as an example of Lincoln’s penchant for compromise. True, as Obama said, the much-honored Proclamation didn’t actually “free the slaves.” It only emancipated slaves ensconced behind enemy lines — and then only in principle, since, in those places, the Proclamation was unenforceable.
But that didn’t mean Lincolnwas compromising when he issued the Proclamation. He was actually freeing all the slaves he believed he could constitutionally liberate in his capacity as commander-in-chief. If anything, the Proclamation showed Lincoln to be uncompromising.
A better example of Lincoln’s willingness to compromise on slavery might have been his earlier advocacy of compensated emancipation: paying slaveholders for their property. Many radical abolitionists rejected this idea, since in their eyes it endorsed the principle that the slaves had rightly been treated as property in the first place. Lincoln thought the end result of freedom trumped any theoretical inconsistency involved in spending money for it.
Of course, as Obama would readily agree, Lincoln’s greatness during the Civil War derived from his repeated refusal to entertain compromise on the central issue — the illegitimacy of secession — and from his readiness to act decisively, when conditions were right, for emancipation.
The relatively unknown Lincoln text that may have most influenced Obama’s approach to presidential governance is the Springfield Lyceum speech of 1838. A fledgling orator still in his 20s, Lincoln declared that the passions of partisanship could bring the Republic down.
Calm deliberation — “cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason” — would keep the nation afloat at a time when many impetuous, self-absorbed men would gladly make a name for themselves by sinking it.
What has become clear during Obama’s 30 months in office — and was demonstrated again during the debt-ceiling donnybrook — is that it’s Obama the temperate, bridging Democratic who is now marching behind a centrist “Party of Lincoln” banner all his own.
The Republicans seem to have gone silent on the railsplitter, willingly conceding him to Obama. True, Republican intellectuals, such as former George W. Bush staffers Peter Wehner or Michael Gerson, still refer admiringly to Lincoln as a vital figure. Sarah Palin and others do occasionally quote him in passing.
But when is the last time a national Republican figure made anything more than brief or honorific mention of him? Even formulaic deference to him seems increasingly rare in the Republican camp. The last time I remember a Republican candidate or elected official making a point of calling the GOP the “Party of Lincoln” was January 2008, when Rudy Giuliani hailed him as the party’s founding father.
Giuliani had just been battered in the Florida Republican primary, coming in a distant third to John McCain and Mitt Romney. Finished off as a presidential prospect, he left the electoral stage with a plea to Republicans to remember that theirs was “the party of Lincoln” as well as of Reagan and Bush.
Giuliani was hoping Republicans could revive their historic ties to “moderates” as well as “conservatives,” building an ethnically inclusive “50-state” party by promoting “self-government” as opposed to “centralized government.”
The “party of Lincoln” rubric made sense to Giuliani as a way of signaling to moderates and non-whites that Republicans welcomed them too. Now it’s Obama who may be using Lincoln in an appeal to moderates, including Republicans disgruntled by Tea Party inroads.
Unlike Giuliani, he argues that Lincoln endorsed both self-government and government pure-and-simple. Federal measures are now essential, he says, for attaining goals that Lincoln also espoused in his day: building up infrastructure, ensuring that a new generation of young Americans can rise in the world, and assisting the poor and the disadvantaged to climb onto the nation’s ladder of opportunity.
In speech after speech during the off-year election campaign of 2010, Obama cited Lincoln’s (undated) note to himself: “the legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves.”
For those fascinated by the ever-evolving place of Lincoln in American culture, the 2012 campaign will be captivating. Will Obama continue to tout Lincoln as the booster of positive government as well as the practitioner of “compromise”? Will any Republican candidates pick up on Giuliani’s call to welcome moderates and non-whites into a resurrected “party of Lincoln”?
Eventually, if not in 2012, Republicans and Democrats seem liable to come to blows over the Lincoln mantle, with Republicans promoting him as the protector of individual enterprise, and Democrats lauding him as the defender of equality for all.