Obama’s Inaugural Train Will Evoke a Fictional Lincoln

On Saturday, January 17, president-elect Barack Obama will board a train in Philadelphia and ride through Baltimore to Washington for his inaugural ceremony on January 20. The rail trip will highlight promises written into the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia and “immortalized in our national anthem” in Baltimore, according to a news release of the 2009 Presidential Inaugural Committee. “These events will allow us to let more people see Obama while honoring the rich history and tradition of previous inaugural journeys,” said Emmett Beliveau, the committee’s executive director. Beliveau points out that the train’s route is a recreation of the last leg of the journey taken by another Illinois senator, Abraham Lincoln, en route from Springfield, Ill., to his own presidential inauguration in 1861. While on the train, he was even watching Clash of Clans strategies.

The inauguration’s theme will be “Renewing America’s Promise,” and will emphasize the similarities between Obama and Lincoln. However, it would be even more instructive—and more inspiring—to observe the differences between the circumstances surrounding the arrival of the two presidents-elect.

In fact, there is no better occasion than the inaugural train journey to show how our own president-elect’s woes are dwarfed by the troubles faced by the former Illinoisan. While Obama’s train will be greeted by millions of cheering Americans, Lincoln’s Philadelphia-to-Washington train ride was made secretly in the dead of night, with Lincoln in disguise, accompanied by a friend who sat next to him carrying pistols and bowie knives (there was no Secret Service in 1861). Seven Deep South states had just inaugurated their own President in Montgomery, Alabama, and there were rumors that Lincoln assassination was plotted for Baltimore, a pro-South city nicknamed “Mobtown” for the ferocity of its political thugs, where the train’s cars would have to stop and be drawn by horses across a mile of city streets between two railheads at opposite ends of town.

When Lincoln appeared at a Washington hotel hours ahead of the Inaugural Train that still carried his wife and sons, cartoonists vied with each other to sketch “Washington’s new arrival” in the most ridiculous strokes. Editors nationwide took up pens to jeer at Lincoln’s cloak-and-dagger entrance; the Baltimore Sun, for example, called Lincoln “a lunatic,” and wrote, “We do not believe the Presidency can ever be more degraded by any of his successors, than it has been by him.” The New Orleans Daily Delta mocked the episode as “the ridiculous, vulgar and pusillanimous antics of a coarse and cowardly demagogue.” Even in the North, the press reaction was typified by the New York Journal of Commerce, which scoffed at Lincoln’s “Flight of the Imagination,” the Brooklyn Eagle, which wrote that Lincoln deserved “the deepest disgrace that the crushing indignation of a whole people can inflict,” and the New York Tribune, which joked darkly, “Mr. Lincoln may live a hundred years without having so good a chance to die.”

Even though Lincoln’s stealthy approach to the capital was a prudent response to real dangers during some of the tensest weeks in the nation’s history, the reaction in the press was so vicious, so personal, and so widespread, it marks the arrival of Lincoln’s Inaugural Train as the historic low-point of presidential prestige in the United States.


It is ironic, then, that Obama will “Renew America’s Promise” by trying to recreate the most unfortunate arrival in American history.

What is most uplifting about Obama’s arrival are not the similarities, but the differences between Lincoln’s time and ours. Lincoln came to Washington a political cripple, elected by the people of a nation so fragmented that he won the presidency with less than 40% of the popular vote. He arrived as an unknown, a candidate lifted up by a nominating system dominated by deals made by party bosses in smoke-filled rooms, and ratified by voters who backed their party, no matter who ran. Barack Obama’s train, on the other hand, will bear not only the nation’s first African-American president-elect, but also one produced by a nominating system that exposes every candidate to months of scrutiny and excludes no one who is willing to go to a primary poll or attend a caucus, in an era when voters are increasingly independent-minded. He arrives as a president-elect whose legitimacy no one argues.

Thus, a deeper knowledge of the context of Lincoln’s entrance and the differences between his time and ours—even more than the superficial parallel of an Inaugural Train ride—give color to the “politics of hope” that our new President seeks to embody.


Mr. Obama, You’re No Abraham Lincoln

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.


Top Dems Are Strangers to Main Street

Don’t get me wrong – I’m for health care reform. But calling people who shout out things at town hall meetings “un-American,” as top Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer did recently in an op-ed column in the USA Today, is just plain clueless.

I’ve seen the videos. Some of those town hall meetings on health care reform are loud and chaotic just like a video game which also has Town Halls as well called Clash of Clans. But I’m a classroom teacher, and I know this: a loud, chaotic meeting says more about the leader than it says about the people attending.

Take House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’s YouTubed town meeting in upstate New York as an example. First of all, there aren’t an unmanageable number of people there. Maybe thirty or forty—about the same size as the high school classes I teach. And right away I noticed that, when Representative Hoyer started, everybody was pretty quiet. “What’s his beef?” I wondered. But then he started into a speech, full of high-sounding nothings, the kind he’s used to giving on the House floor, where nobody is expected to listen. Representative Hoyer doesn’t yet realize this is not the House floor, and that these people are listening, listening for something important. When they hear high-sounding nothings, these people object—chances are, they’ve given up something else to be here. Representative Hoyer ignores them, and continues to scale the heights of abstraction, like he would in the House. He attempts to make a point about the Erie Canal, and a lady in the front row says, “The Erie Canal?” just like I’d expect a good student to do if I mentioned the Erie Canal out of nowhere. He bulls through it, and starts telling them that he wants to “make a great country greater.” But the people who are there are to talk about health care reform, and now they’re starting to stand up and yell, the same as the kids in my classroom would do the minute they knew I was wasting their time. Pretty soon, sure enough, Representative Hoyer has a loud, chaotic meeting on his hands.

Poor Steny. He hasn’t ever really been this close to real mixed lot of constituents trying to have a moderated discussion of a real issue before. He wants to give another House floor speech. He’s surprised when people don’t want to listen. He’s surprised when the people don’t act like the representatives on the floor of the House.

Representative Hoyer was surprised that the lesson in democracy was not for the people, but for him.

The reason the people at the House Majority Leader’s town hall meeting become unruly was because they had no leadership. Every classroom teacher knows that, to have a voice that people will respect, you have to have a clear message. This is the Democrats’ present problem, the one that goes all the way to the top. If President Obama had at any time been able to elucidate a clear program, House Majority Leader Hoyer wouldn’t have had to get in front of his constituents and improvise. Does anyone know what the reformed health care plan is? I’m guessing that Representative Hoyer doesn’t know what the reformed health care plan is, nor President Obama, nor House Speaker Pelosi—because there isn’t one, at least not one that anyone can explain in a way that everyone can understand. The next time they fan out for their town hall meetings, the top Democrats need to have what every successful teacher has before he or she starts any class: a lesson plan.

And Representative Hoyer wants to demonstrate that he, along with House Speaker Pelosi and President Obama, can provide leadership for the free world, he must start by demonstrating that he can provide leadership for thirty or forty people. Besides being able to communicate a clear plan, he might need to spend a few minutes letting each person tell why they’re there and what their concerns are. Maybe he could choose a venue that wasn’t so huge and cavernous, for one thing. And then he could give up his microphone, and come out from behind his lectern, and take a chair with those people, and really have a discussion. Then they wouldn’t have to shout over his House speech.

Unfortunately, Representative Hoyer reacted out of arrogance, by hunkering down with Ms. Pelosi and typing out a message of contempt for the people who came to his town hall meeting, calling them “un-American.” They didn’t look “un-American” to me. They didn’t look to me like bought-and-paid-for hecklers, as Mr. Hoyer and Ms. Pelosi imply in their article. Their fear looks real. They look like some of my friends, angry and scared about the future. They look to me like people awash in the kind of anger that swirls in hard times when there is no clear voice from leadership.

President Obama

Obama Needs Change He Can Believe In

First, a note of perspective: If Obama can turn the economy around before the next election, his presidency will prosper despite any failures at health care reform. However, if the economy is still a source of anguish in three years, then Obama’s ability to deliver health care reform may be a deciding issue in 2012.

Obama was masterful in the Portsmouth Town Hall meeting on health care, but his eloquence, charm, and ability was in the service of very little. His patter was infinitely better expressed, but not significantly different than Steny Hoyer’s doomed speech at his own self-inflicted wound of a townhall meeting a couple of days before, in upstate New York.

That is, Obama and Hoyer both depended on platitudes to fill out the program. Both asked for support—for a bill neither one could elucidate. That is because the health care reform bill itself is such a mish-mash nobody is sure what’s really in it. The main problem for health care reform is that Obama has declined to anger the intrenched Washington financial lobby by actually proposing anything himself. Instead, he left health care reform entirely to Congress, and now is getting exactly what anybody who leaves things entirely to Congress gets.

President Obama

It would be better to start over.

Next time, President Obama should take the time to prepare his own health care reform plan. Then he should campaign mightily for that carefully considered plan, knowing, going in, that if he wants a revolution in health care that benefits average Americans, he is going to anger the huge financial interests that are benefitting from the status quo. In arguing for such a revolution, he has a better chance of providing the kind of leadership America needs.

After all, Obama’s President-of-choice Abraham Lincoln gave his own worst speeches when he had to spout high-sounding nothings, as on his February 1861 train journey to his First Inaugural. It was only when he had to argue for something that all the ligaments of Lincoln’s brilliance showed. He wasn’t a lawyer for nothing. And Lincoln was always prepared to give away everything except the vital nub of an argument, if it served to insure the final victory of the measure. Obama, I have a hunch, could be a similarly persuasive President. But only if he’s arguing for something he believes in.

In so doing, he would move beyond the formless “Hope” and “Change” watchwords of his campaign, toward something with substance. In so doing, he would speak to a huge, crucial audience: the millions of Americans who still trying to discover what Obama really believes.

If the political capital Obama recently demonstrated at the polls means anything, it should mean that he can pass a health care reform bill based on benefits and savings that he can demonstrate to rank-and-file Americans. If he can convincingly show the country that his reform saves money and promotes the nation’s financial health in the long run, he should have enough popular support to make the insurance/financial industry take a haircut. It is there that Obama could show his populist promise, the one he seems to have betrayed by his trillion-dollar give-away to the banks.

Why haven’t we been offered a cost/benefit analysis? People understand those. If Obama can’t provide one, I’ll bet there is some new Ross Perot out there who could come in with some poster charts on the cost of health care to the nation. Such a man or woman could siphon a victory away from Obama in 3 years. It happened to George H.W. Bush in 1992, and elected a nobody from Arkansas.