Barack Obama has always made his identification with Abraham Lincoln a central feature of his political image. In January, Obama rode from Philadelphia to Washington on the “Lincoln Train,” retracing the last leg of Lincoln’s 1861 train journey to the capital to highlight his inaugural theme, “A New Birth of Freedom,” taken from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. On “60 Minutes,” he famously told Katie Couric, “I’ve been spending a lot of time reading Lincoln. There is a wisdom there, and a humility about his approach to government.” When he was sworn in, Obama placed his hand on the Lincoln Bible.
So far, however, Obama’s likeness to the 16th President has been limited to the fact that they are both tall skinny guys from Illinois.
The likeness was hype from the outset, of course. The two men’s political fortunes couldn’t have been more different. Lincoln’s approval rating at his inauguration was the historical rock bottom for a U.S. President, about 25%, whereas Obama enjoyed a sky-high 65% approval rating at his swearing-in. (Obama never noted that Lincoln’s ride into Washington—the original “Lincoln Train”—was made in secret in the dead of night to avoid an assassination plot, and that he was pilloried in the national press for cowardice as a result.)
But Obama has only made the differences with Lincoln starker in the days since his inaugural. Whereas Lincoln did more with less political capital than any U.S. President before or since, Obama has stood Lincoln’s accomplishment on its head—he has done less with more popularity than many presidents ever enjoy.
Consider the record:
Lincoln, in the days after his election, maintained a steely prohibition of any compromise on his campaign’s major issue—stopping the expansion of slavery into the western territories—to stiffen Republican congressmen in Washington who were ready to bargain it away in the heat of the national emergency. Lincoln’s political stand against the slave-holding oligarchy was a complete break with his feeble predecessor, James Buchanan, who had kowtowed to the Slaveocracy while the nation hurtled toward oblivion.
Obama, on the other hand, is too busy clutching at the chimera of post-partisan politics to draw one single line in the sand.
Where Lincoln urged his party’s men to “hold firm, as with a chain of steel,” Obama has refused to define, much less demand his party’s stand on any of the issues in the present crisis.
Where Lincoln repudiated the anti-democratic Slaveocracy, Obama has continued the government’s obeisance to Wall Street, sending trillions of dollars to our own modern-day oligarchy with its strangle hold on Washington—as unemployment rises, mortgage defaults continue, state and local governments collapse and wages spiral downward (except at Goldman Sachs).
Where Lincoln did not hesitate to dictate measures to Congress at the opening of the Civil War, Obama has not dared to do so. His unwillingness to outline his own proposal for Universal Health Care, his own Fort Sumter in the Charleston Harbor of the insurance and pharmaceutical lobby, has confounded the nation. It is Obama who now acquiesces to Congress, as when it brushed off his call to finish a Health Care bill before its August recess.
Where Lincoln made a clean break with the disastrous policies of his predecessors, Obama has instead presided over a continuance of his predecessor’s embrace of monied interests, the suspension of habeas corpus, Guantanamo (now Bagram), and a costly war in Afghanistan.
Abraham Lincoln’s genius lay in his mastery of politics as “the art of the possible,” at a time when the possibilities were severely limited by his lack of popularity, even in the North. Obama has few such limitations, given his vast worldwide popular favor. And yet, so far, we are in the throes of a muddle more like the collapse of will in the late 1850s than the “Second American Revolution” Lincoln inaugurated.
Even as Obama continues to invoke Lincoln (to the point where Hillary Clinton now publicly likens herself to Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward), his hesitancy to lead is more a reminder of that perennial cellar-dweller in the presidential polls, James Buchanan, than of the Great Emancipator.