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.