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Analysis: Looking for Lincoln in Obama's election

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 11, 2009 - Barack Obama's visit to Springfield, Ill., on the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth will further energize the small industry devoted to comparing the two presidents. Both launched their political careers in Illinois, and both moved into the White House in times of unprecedented crisis, succeeding presidents considered failures at the time. Like Lincoln, Obama installed political rivals such as Hillary Clinton in his Cabinet. Both are tall, thin, even-tempered, smart and eloquent lawyers.

President Obama has invited these comparisons to Lincoln. He launched his campaign in Springfield, he said, "in the shadow of the Old State Capitol, where Lincoln once called on a divided house to stand together ..." Like Lincoln, Obama travelled to his inaugural by train, invoking the need for a new declaration of independence, a document Lincoln himself redefined as a profoundly egalitarian commitment. Obama took the oath of office on the same bible used by Lincoln at his 1861 inauguration.

We should hardly be surprised that Obama is reluctant to suggest additional parallels between himself and Lincoln. Like most other presidents, Lincoln was a politician foremost, a man who hungered for elective office. Defeats did not remove this political appetite. And like Obama, Lincoln was an inexperienced office-holder when he assumed the presidency. By 1861, Lincoln had served as a legislator for only 10 years, most of them in the Illinois legislature.

Political Time

The most interesting comparison between the two presidents is the state of the nation when they assumed the office. On the surface, of course, Obama presides over a nation that Lincoln could not recognize. Lincoln's United States was an insulated, incompletely settled, largely agricultural nation literally tearing itself apart over slavery and regionalism. Obama is the product of a metropolitan, post-industrial nation, with 10 times more citizens than it had in 1860. It also is many times more diverse than Lincoln's America. The United States is a global military, economic, technological and cultural behemoth.

Even though circumstances have changed dramatically, Lincoln and Obama came to the White House in political times that are comparable in several ways (political time is an idea introduced by political scientist Stephen Skowronek). The political fundamentals of 1861 would seem familiar to us, despite the nation's differences.

One political party - the Democrats from the late 1820s to 1860; the Republicans since 1980 - had mostly dominated the national policy agenda for more than a generation. But these once-dominant party coalitions were beginning to decay when Lincoln and Obama were elected. The nation had changed, and a host of new issues undercut the agendas upon which one parties' dominance was founded.

Today, the Reagan era is coming to a close just as surely as the Andrew Jackson's Democratic era was coming to a close a 150 years ago. The cold war is over, despite President George W. Bush's effort to revive it as a framework for America's global posture when he spoke at the Reagan Library in 2005. The 20th century American economy is passing away.

Stable icons of American life, from General Motors to Sears, are tenuously balanced on the edge of a financial precipice. Globalization and the internet are transforming most aspects of American life in ways Americans do not fully comprehend. For the moment, as some of its own leaders warn, the Republicans look like a regional party, strong only in the south, the interior west and rural America. The Republican coalition, at least for the moment, has suffered enormous losses on the coasts, the industrial midsection, and in the politically decisive suburbs, where half of American voters live.

Our willingness to entertain the Lincoln-Obama comparisons, and the hope of many Americans that Obama can channel Lincoln, follows logically from our place in a time of political deconstruction. Americans acutely need a mature chief executive who will preside with justice, generosity and concern for our democracy.

The Myth of Lincoln

In our hazy national memory, Lincoln was an exceptionally wise, fair, firm and humble leader. But the Lincoln Memorial does not remind us of how much Lincoln was hated and ridiculed while he served as president. No one alive can remember that many Americans thought that Lincoln was incompetent, indecisive and inadequate for the job. For a time in 1864, Lincoln and his friends were very pessimistic about his re-election.

Lincoln only became Lincoln because of his four terrible years in the White House, years that no one could have predicted in February 1861 and that few would wish on another human being. However much we need the idealized Lincoln, this romanticized president never existed in his lifetime and will not exist in ours. The United States does not get to have the Lincoln of our national memory. Lincoln made his own presidency, and his own political legacy. As Lincoln reminded us, we cannot escape history.

Obama, a political pioneer like Lincoln, must lay his own path to the political reconstruction of the United States, and it will be all his own. This path is as unpredictable to us as is the year 2012.

David B. Robertson is a professor at the University of Missouri St. Louis and a fellow at the Public Policy Research Center.

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