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Obama and Lincoln: parallels between the centuries

Wednesday, February 11, 2009 - 6:01 pm

President Barack Obama is not the 21st-century Abraham Lincoln, although if you followed his campaign, you could be forgiven some confusion. From the time two years ago when Obama declared his presidential candidacy in Springfield, Ill., to his pre-Inaugural celebration before the Lincoln Memorial, Obama has linked himself to that earlier tall, skinny fellow from Illinois who was born 200 years ago today.

Certainly parallels exist between the 16th and 44th presidents. Two lawyers from humble origins. Two relative unknowns springing from Illinois politics onto a national stage. Two exceptionally accomplished writers. Two speakers who could captivate crowds. Two men mocked and caricatured as unfit, untested and incapable by their political enemies.

But drawing too many parallels between them is premature in the fourth week of Obama’s presidency. That might seem obvious, but it’s worth emphasizing, said Jason Jividen, assistant professor of political science at the University of Saint Francis. That people fall for the Obama-as-Lincoln story says something about the adept politics of Obama’s campaign and the desire of reporters for a story that resonates so powerfully with American history.

“There’s nothing remarkable about politicians appealing to Lincoln,” Jividen said Wednesday. Teddy Roosevelt’s supporters compared him to Lincoln, as did Woodrow Wilson’s and Franklin Roosevelt’s.

“So much of this comparison has been initiated by Obama and his speechwriters,” Jividen said.

To balance the picture deftly sketched by Obama and his supporters, consider some of the differences.

• “Obama is beginning much more popular than Lincoln began,” said Elizabeth Kuebler-Wolf, assistant professor of art history at Saint Francis. Lincoln has been much in her thoughts recently, because she’s researching artistic presentations of pro- and anti-slavery arguments in 1860.

• Michael Wolf, assistant professor of political science at IPFW, points out that everyone knew Lincoln would be a divisive president – a civil war’s worth of divisive, as it happened. But Obama has emphasized his “trying to unify the country in a ‘post-partisan’ way,” said Wolf, who is Kuebler-Wolf’s husband.

• Obama appears convinced of the momentum of “progress;” that is, the belief that human beings are improving their lot with near-inevitability, Jividen said. Lincoln’s doubt and soul-searching during the Civil War led him to a greater degree of humility over time.

At the same time, there are similarities between the two on subtler levels than their physiques and geography.

• “They share an ironic trait,” Wolf said. “They both approach things pragmatically, but they want to make their decisions consequential. … They’re big-thought people, but they understand the need in American politics to act pragmatically at times.”

• “Both are remarkably candid about their ambition,” Jividen said.

• Both Lincoln and Obama drew more in their writing and speaking from the idealism of the Declaration of Independence than from any other political document, Jividen said. It’s also obvious that Obama has a deep understanding of Lincoln’s political philosophy, he said.

For now, the differences in the challenges they faced and the times that produced them may make full comparisons pointless. How do you compare the end of slavery and a civil war that killed 1 in 50 Americans with an economic crisis that threatens jobs?

With a little luck, neither Obama nor any future president will bear burdens as great as Lincoln did.

“Lincoln faced the greatest challenge a president could ever face,” Jividen said.