Much has been made of Barack Obama’s identification with Abraham Lincoln. Obama choose a line from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address – “A New Birth of Freedom” — as the theme for his own inauguration speech. He took his oath of office on Lincoln’s personal bible.
And like Lincoln, Obama has attempted to create a “team of rivals,” placing former opponents from within his party, such as Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton, as well as Republicans, at the center of power in his administration.
Of course, Lincoln makes a powerful role model for any president, especially in troubled times.
But there are at least five ways in which Obama should not follow Lincoln’s example, and five corresponding ways in which Lincoln should serve Obama as an example of what not to do.
First, do not believe that you can succeed by compromising with those who are set to destroy you.
Like most moderates on the issue of slavery, and unlike the radicals and abolitionists, Lincoln believed that his enemies in the slave-holding South were reasonable men and that he could hold the Union together by compromise. Although he abhorred slavery, he promised not to emancipate the slaves by force.
Instead, Lincoln held to a policy of gradually ending slavery by containing it within the slave states (and prohibiting it within the new federal territories) and by offering compensated emancipation (along with the removal of freed slaves to Africa) over a period of many years.
The South didn’t buy it – they saw Lincoln as a far more radical and dangerous opponent of slavery than he was – and were unwilling to engage in any compromise themselves. They had prepared for war and attacked the Union as soon as Lincoln was elected.
Second, do not fail to prepare for all-out war with your opponents.
Because Lincoln believed that he could win over the slave-holders with a policy of gradualism and compromise, he failed to prepare, as his enemies had, for all-out war As a result, the first years of the Civil War were a near disaster for Lincoln and the Union.
Third, do not allow yourself to be pressured into making a bad appointment to the Supreme Court.
Lincoln’s first appointment to the Court was Noah Haynes Swayne. Swayne was a close friend of Supreme Court justice John McLean, who had issued a stirring dissent in the Dred Scott case and was a powerful force in the new Republican Party. McLean had tried twice for the party’s presidential nomination and was probably instrumental in rallying Republican support for Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election. When McLean died in April 1861, Lincoln appointed Swayne to take his place, largely on McLean’s recommendation, as well as intense lobbying by Republican members of Congress, railroads, and banks. Swanye wrote little for the Court and is remembered today mostly for his support for the broad expansion of legal privileges for corporations.
Fourth, don’t change vice-presidents.
Lincoln’s first vice-president was Hannibal Hamlin, a senator from Maine. Hamlin was a staunch opponent of slavery and was supported by the more radical Republicans and abolitionists. For his second presidential election campaign, Lincoln picked a new running mate, Andrew Johnson of Tennessee. While little is known for certain about the reason Lincoln decided to replace Hamlin with Johnson, the decision was probably made with the hope that a Southern vice-president would help unify the nation at the conclusion of the war. Johnson, of course, went on to allow the slave-holders and racists in the defeated South to regain power and effectively re-enslave Black people for another hundred years.
Fifth, do not grow a beard.
It worked for Lincoln. It won’t work for Barack Obama.