Saturday, November 22, 2008

President Obama and Lincoln

President-elect Barack Obama, who may surprise us all, is said to have been much impressed by Doris Kearns Goodwin’s new book on Abraham Lincoln, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.”

Part of the genius of Lincoln, Kearns Goodwin believes, lay in his ability to bend men to his purposes. Lincoln prevailed over his political rivals because he was able to live in their skins and think with their brains. And when it came time for Lincoln to build his cabinet, he put together a “team of rivals” that worked well under his direction because he was able to master men through a respect for his competitors.

“Good leadership,” Kearns said, “requires you to surround yourself with people of diverse perspectives who can disagree with you without fear of retaliation. Lincoln placed his three chief rivals for the Republican nomination in crucial positions in his Cabinet and filled the rest of his top jobs with former Democrats. His Cabinet sessions were fiery affairs, but they provided him with a wide range of advice and opinion.”

Of course, there are as many books on Lincoln as there are views of him. Lincoln has been appraised and reappraised more often than other lesser American presidents. Two other excellent books on Lincoln out recently are “Tried by War,” written by the distinguished Civil War historian James McPherson, and “Lincoln at Peoria: The Turning Point,” by Lewis E. Lehrman.

McPherson argues that Lincoln was considerable more involved in managing the Civil War than previously had been suspected. Lincoln was the only president “whose entire administration was bounded by war.” Lehrman points out that it was during a speech in Peoria that Lincoln effectively became Lincoln. In the Peoria speech, Lincoln dedicated himself irretrievably to a deep and abiding commitment to the revolutionary principles of 1776 as adumbrated in the “all men are created equal” doctrine of the Declaration of Independence, which Lincoln regarded as “the sheet anchor of American republicanism.” It was in this speech that a prescient Lincoln warned American would move towards civil war if the Kansas-Nebraska Act was not repealed.

Obama's "turning point," that testing point in his presidency when he becomes what he is, lies in the future.

Comparisons between Obama and Lincoln are inevitable. Both are relatively unknown one term legislators who ascended to the presidency. Both were state legislators in Illinois. Both have a certain flair with the language, though Obama is more prosaic, Lincoln more poetic. The administrations of both may be bounded by war. And then, of course, there is a historic connection between the two: Lincoln rang the death knell on slavery; Obama, the first African American president, may do the same with the remnants of Jim Crow in American culture.

But comparisons are useful only up to a certain point. Though history may sometimes seem beguilingly repetitive, history does not repeat itself, and it is the differences that matter.

When Obama steps into the White House, his window on the world will show a country and a world racked with painful problems. We are engaged in a war on terror that will not end if we wink at it, and the recession now upon us very well might be prolonged if presidential prescriptions for spurring the economy are not effective.

Added to all this are the political problems – namely, the Clintons.

During the Democrat primaries, Hillary Clinton was a little sharper with Obama than, say, Sen. Joe Lieberman, and husband Bill was even sharper than his convivial wife. Hillary regarded Obama as a foreign policy wreck waiting to happen and provided Republicans, during their general election struggle, with much appreciated aid and comfort. Obama, perhaps heeding the words of Kearns Goodwin, now has retaliated by offering Mrs. Clinton a position in his cabinet as Secretary of State, in which position she is certain to draw fire from progressive guerillas such as the frumious Ms. Huffington of the Huffington Post and bandersnatches such as whathisface over at DailyKos, the progressive’s bible of bilious anti-war protest.

At this point, all of us but Christopher Hitchens should wish the new president God speed. His cabinet picks so far suggest a man who is not tied inextricably to his elastic campaign promises or to defeatist ideologies. And he certainly has the native talent to be a great president, if only he has the courage to ignore bad advice from his team of rivals.

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