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Lincoln 2.0? Not Yet

In the heady days of early 2009, comparisons were made between Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln. While both shared the gift of rhetorical brilliance, the two were mentioned in the same breath because neither had previously achieved much in the way of a substantial political resume. Lincoln had only served one term in the House. Obama had only served one term in the Senate. Neither man achieved his office as a front runner. I even remember visiting the location of a presidential ball to be held in a museum a month or two before Obama was formally sworn in. It had rather haughtily been titled “Lincoln 2.0” Now, few would use such a turn of phrase.

The comparisons were flimsy then and they are much less plentiful today. One could conceivably call Barack Obama a wartime president, but Iraq and Afghanistan are nothing compared to a bloody, divisive Civil War that tore the country in two.

Lincoln backed up his words with action, though he also made mistakes while in office. For example, it took nearly half the conflict to find a suitable general. Then, the war consumed the American consciousness; nothing held the public attention more. Now, war is a tertiary issue, far overshadowed by economic woes. Obama has much to learn from Lincoln, not from his Team of Rivals concept, but from his dexterity as a politician. Lincoln may have been understated in his approach, but everyone always knew who was really in charge. There’s a difference between being gracious and being detached from the process.

Obama was criticized some months ago for being the deist president.  In other words, he set everything in motion and let the rest of the political establishment govern itself. In an ideal world, professionals would be proactive enough to perform their stated job titles. But I still believe that a strong executive needs to set a course and must intercede regularly when necessary. Otherwise, what gets accomplished is minimal and characterized by fractious squabbling. Even leaders need guidance. It is a truism of humanity that effective leaders are few in number and always have been so. Lincoln’s genius was not just for keeping his cool, but for understanding that every person in a position of authority must be periodically approached and sometimes even confronted. Lincoln may have been a diplomat, but on substantive matters, he was not a compromiser.

The parallels to the current day now are quite different. Though still the odds-on favorite for four more years, an increasingly vulnerable Obama seems incapable of shaping his fate. The longer financial woes and dismal job numbers persist, the further his stock declines in value. Winning a second term office was also much in doubt, for a time, for Lincoln. As for the latter, he was beset by a faction of the Democratic Party which was weary of war and wished to negotiate peace terms with the Confederacy. Had not the Union won a crushing, decisive victory at the Battle of Atlanta and had not the port city of Mobile, Alabama, been captured, Abraham Lincoln may never have made it to a second term in office. President Obama will need to point to more than the killing of Osama Bin Laden to make a case to the American people.

Obama might also need to take a page out of Lincoln’s playbook, namely Honest Abe’s patronage system. Initially, Lincoln had believed that dispensing political appointments to supporters was undemocratic, but he learned quickly that its function was absolutely essential to keeping intact a base of support. So by the time he became president, Lincoln became not just a superb mentor but also skilled in knowing what political assignments to grant, and to whom. That all of these appointments happened to be Republican was no surprise. President Obama still seems to hope that we live in a post-partisan world beyond these trifling distinctions. Any successful chief executive must learn to balance the factionalism and rivalry that are the hallmark of every political machine. Coalitions do not build themselves.

Should President Obama win a second term, he will need to learn to reshape his entire perspective. Civility and proper conduct means little for those who do not believe in them. Seeming above the fray is sometimes a good strategy, but it doesn’t need to be a long-term state of being. There is a way to rule as the adult in the room and still recognize that adults need supervision, too. A strong executive branch can be problematic, but it need not be. Every single one of our very best presidents has understood the need to take charge, but also to not run roughshod over the responsibilities of others in the process. Should Obama recognize this, prepare yourself once again for Lincoln 2.0.

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  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    I don’t know, Kevin. Being articulate, in and of itself, doesn’t translate to leadership. Passion and convictions are just as important, and it’s precisely in this department that I find him most lacking. There’s a great disconnect between this president when in the campaigning mode and his professorial tone when speaking from the Oval Office, and it troubles me. Makes me wonder at times which is the true Obama.

    JKF and RFK both had an uncanny ability to communicate their emotions, passions and convictions on any occasional; and there are times, when a country is in a crisis, when the confidence in the government and the direction we’re going is at its low, when that’s precisely what the doctor ordered. FDR had that gift too; I won’t speak of Lincoln because that was before the advent of instant media. (Energizing the public, preparing it for tough times ahead, is as essential as coming up with immediate and lasting solutions. Even in the worst possible scenario, it buys you time.) This president, however, for some reason, doesn’t.

    But perhaps you’re saying something to that effect, in short hand, when you point to Obama’s tendency to compromise as his greatest weakness.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    And since we’re at it, why don’t you post a comment or two on the “Portrait” thread? I’d be interested in your gut reaction.

  • Kenn Jacobine

    Truth be told, the biggest similarity between Lincoln and Obama is that they are both war criminals. Lincoln had blood on his hands of over 500,000 of his countrymen on both sides of the war. He launched an illegal, brutal war on people who were exercising their right to self-determination under the Constitution. He deported, executed, and imprisoned everyone that got in his way. He even issued an arrest warrent for the Supreme Court Chief Justice for publicly disagreeing with Lincoln about the war. And of course he gave the barbarian Sherman carte blanche to punish the South.

    Obama is not so bad at least domestically. It is troublesome that he has asserted his authority to assassinate Americans if he suspects them of beng terrorists. He has continued the Bush wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and has escalates bombings on Pakistan. Then of course we have the unprovoked attack on Libya. This all to say nothing of his continued operations at Gitmo and waterboarding at detention camps in North Africa. Wow, these guys are real American heros!

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    I agree with the second paragraph, Kenn. Can’t say that, however for the first, even though, granted, the economic motive may have been more causative than the moral one.

  • http://tmackorg.com/ Tommy Mack

    Personality and presidency make for interesting commentary, as they should. Context, however, is another matter. Without context, commentary is reduced to a form of innuendo, at best, or name calling, otherwise.

    Comparing Lincoln to Obama in 807 words is less than a bumper-sticker.

    Tommy

  • Clavos

    I saw it more as a contrast than a comparison.

    And correctly so.

    Lincoln governed.

  • Arch Conservative

    My former comment was removed?

    Nice to see the editors of this site haven’t sopped taking themselves too seriously.

    As for Obama being another Lincoln…eh more like another Carter.

  • http://www.RoseDigitalMarketing.com Christopher Rose

    Archie: The only time your comments are removed is when you resort to name calling and insults rather than making your point.

    If that is taking things too seriously – which it isn’t – then guilty as charged!

    Christopher Rose
    Blogcritics Comments Editor

  • Arch Conservative

    Eh but it was such a lighthearted insult.