CNN is doing all day coverage of “From Lincoln to Obama,” discussing the sixteenth’s president legacy in conjunction with Barack Obama’s burgeoning 44th presidency.
This is the 200th birthday of Lincoln, but Obama-Lincoln comparisons have been going on since Obama started his run for president two years ago, announcing his candidacy on the steps of the Capitol building in Springfield, Illinois.
Obama adopted Lincoln’s “Team of Rivals” strategy of sorts in picking his cabinet and staff (although I’d argue that most of Obama’s cabinet is pretty agreeable). Lincoln-based questions pop up interviews and because of the historical president’s looming significance as both “The Great Emancipator” and the man who kept the Union together despite a bloody Civil War.
His is the shadow every US president operates from out under.
The comparisons between Obama and Lincoln are one part good public relations and one part laziness. Because of the already historical nature of Obama’s election, the attitude towards the out-going president, the turbulence of the last six years and the economic crisis, Obama has come into office with exceedingly high expectations on a very, very low bar set by the previous occupant.
If people thought of Bush as a bumbling dolt in the extreme, you have Obama on the other end of the expectations game who, depending on who you talk to, is either Moses or the Messiah. Obama isn’t either (and Bush was a bungling speaker, but not necessarily the complete idiot everyone made him out to be), but that’s the environment he must navigate.
People expect Obama to be great, so they’re comparing him to the greatest and he’s invited these comparisons by mentioning Lincoln, adopting Lincoln, embracing Lincoln and reading Lincoln. Not to mention the billion-and-one photo ops of historical, Lincoln-esque imagery, often with Lincoln as a backdrop. Add in the racial angle of Lincoln starting what would eventual end slavery and Obama being the first person of African descent as president and you’ve got a no-brainer way for CNN to spend a Thursday.
But Lincoln isn’t quite an apropos assessment for Obama. For one, so much of Lincoln has become grand mythology that there is no way any president could live up to the perception. He’s become more of an emotion, a spirit, than an ordinary man who navigated an extraordinary situation.
While debating Lincoln’s actuality versus the monuments and memorials, things can get pretty ugly. Among American historians, the cult of Lincoln is strong, often shouting down anyone who even gives the 16th president a critical look. It never surprises me when people who worship the man are shocked to find that many African Americans have a much more nuanced view despite the whole “Great Emancipator” title.
Some get rather angry and accuse blacks of being ingrates when they learn that we view Lincoln with a sort of “twoness.” While we have adopted him as a symbol, we seem less prone to treating him like he’s untouchable or placing him on a pedestal of perfection. There is regular debate among blacks and black historians about whether Lincoln held racist beliefs, if he was sincere about wanting to end slavery and about how many former slaves felt abandoned by Lincoln after the war ended. After all, there wasn’t much in the way of any education or rehabilitation for the former chattel. Everyone was tossed into the same impoverished, sink or swim situation post the Civil War.
Yet, there’s no denying that the Emancipation Proclamation put the US on that path to end what had been an immoral way to go about building a country and industry. And if you want to be terrified for a few hours in the “what ifs” if Lincoln had failed to keep the country together you could always sit through the faux-documentary “CSA: Confederate States of America.” It’s supposed to be a satire, but I don’t recall laughing once. The images of modern-day slaves being chased down on a “Cops”-style show called “Runaway” and of an old, dying Lincoln in Canadian exile weren’t exactly hilarious to me.
I can understand why Obama would want to be compared to Lincoln. All modern US presidents aspire to be as memorable. But to me, you’re better of asking to be judged on your own merits, not by the impossible stature of a man who looms as a giant in the minds and imaginations of many.
While Washington was the first and FDR set us on the path of being a world superpower, Lincoln governed during the most turbulent time in America’s history and came out on top (albeit assassinated). People often say that the country is divided politically, but this is leftist/righty braying is love taps compared to the South actually attempting to leave the Union and the North fighting to keep the country together by violent force.
But, for all the day-long CNN specials in the world, Obama will be judged by his actions and decisions, his own presidency framed by how he handles our modern crises. Lincoln will always be Lincoln and Obama will be Obama. He’s already made history. Now he has to write the second and perhaps third acts to what has already been a life ripe for its own grand mythmaking. The future is bright, but it’s also filled with uncertainty and struggle.
No one knew Lincoln was going to be “LINCOLN” when he was first elected and unless you were blessed with the gift of amazing foresight, no one knows what Obama will be.