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.