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Obama is not Lincoln

Christie Pesavento | Monday, February 16, 2009

Even before he was elected, Barack Obama has attempted to model his rise to power and subsequent presidency on that of his hero, Abraham Lincoln. From the announcement of his candidacy at the Old State Capitol in Springfield where Lincoln gave his “House Divided” speech, to his arrival by train to Washington, D.C. on Inauguration Day, to being sworn in with his hand on the very Bible Lincoln used, to dining upon Lincoln-inspired foods at the Inaugural luncheon, Obama shows no qualms about comparing himself to the man who often sits atop historians’ lists of greatest presidents in our nation’s history.

The mainstream media, throwing all semblance of objectivity aside in an orgy of adulation for their beloved Chosen One, have seized upon the President’s own blatantly deliberate attempts to draw parallels between himself and Lincoln with immense enthusiasm.

They eagerly point out that the two men were both lawyers of humble origins, both began their political careers in Illinois, and both served in that state’s legislature. They compare Obama’s eloquence to Lincoln’s profound gift of rhetoric. They have even gone as far as observing their similarities in height and stature to prove their point. And instead of honoring the real man of the hour, they transformed the celebration of the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth into yet another chance to tout Obama’s Lincolnesque qualities.

In their eyes, the current president might as well don a stovepipe hat, grow a beard, and have his visage carved into the side of Mount Rushmore.

Now I understand that it is perfectly reasonable for presidents to draw inspiration from their predecessors, and Obama has every right to express gratitude to Lincoln for setting the stage that enabled him to become the first African-American president. But when the endless barrage of analogies begins to distort the truth, we must take a step back to reevaluate the accuracy of our oversimplified characterizations.

Indeed, there exist substantial differences between the two men that go beyond the superficial level of origin, career and appearance.

For instance, Obama’s admirers and critics alike praise him as a gifted speaker, just as generations of Americans continue to extol Lincoln’s powerful speeches. The difference, though, is that while Lincoln’s rhetoric is steeped in substance and profound wisdom, Obama’s words lose their luster when read from a transcript. The phrase, “yes we can” may have been an effective campaigning tool, but in terms of content, it holds next to nothing.

Upon closer inspection of their ideologies, it becomes apparent that Obama’s vision for America dramatically diverges from the path Lincoln carved as president. When Lincoln assumed office in the midst of Southern secession, he knew that the nation would have to fight a war in order to remain united. Unlike his Secretary of State, William Seward, who attempted to reach an agreement with the South that would convince them to remain in the Union, Lincoln refused to budge on his opposition to the spread of slavery, even though he knew this would provoke Southern aggression. Somehow I can’t see Obama, the champion of diplomacy and reaching out to hostile nations, taking a similar stance.

Obviously Lincoln was not very popular among Southerners, but many people today are unaware of the fact that some Northerners criticized the president, claiming that he was bent on destroying civil liberties and had become a tyrant. Rather than preserve the Union, these Northern Democrats were willing to call for an end to the Civil War, even if it meant granting Southerners their independence as a slave-holding nation. Obama and Democrats today, like their forebears in the North, would rather see that terrorists are granted the right to habeas corpus and pull our troops out of Iraq than ensure American victory there.

But the most prominent difference between Lincoln and Obama stems from Lincoln’s steadfast devotion to individual liberty. Although modern historians trace the expansive growth of the federal government to Lincoln’s assumption of broad presidential power during wartime, the President never intended for his actions to establish a precedent upon which his successors could claim increased authority. Writing in response to accusations of tyranny, Lincoln declared:

“I can no more be persuaded that the Government can constitutionally take no strong measures in time of rebellion, because it can be shown that the same could not lawfully be taken in time of peace, than I can be persuaded that a particular drug is not good medicine for a sick man, because it can be shown not to be good for a well one.”

Here, Lincoln demonstrates his recognition that his actions were authorized by extraordinary circumstances, but would not be justified during any other time. Furthermore, the argument that Lincoln’s support for a strong federal government as opposed to states’ rights would have made him a liberal in today’s world because back then there was disagreement over whether or not the states had the legal ability to withdraw from Constitutional rule. Today, the states’ rights debate deals with opposition to the federal government’s encroachment upon the states’ sphere of authority as delegated by the Constitution in the Tenth Amendment. Obama and his party are seeking to expand the federal government to new levels of vastness; Lincoln, with his heightened understanding of the Constitution, would balk at the suggestion.

Christie Pesavento is a junior and can be reached at cpesaven@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

necesarily those of The Observer.