As Barack Obama gazes over the broad expanse of the National Mall when he gives his inaugural address on Tuesday, he will see, gleaming in the distance, an altar to America's struggle for racial justice and national unity—the Lincoln Memorial. Behind the imposing marble and limestone statue of the Great Emancipator are the words, "In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever."
This setting will fit perfectly with Obama's aspirations as the nation's 44th president. Lincoln has been one of his most important role models for many years and will serve as a source of inspiration for his speech and his entire administration, Obama advisers say. Lincoln, an Illinois politician like Obama, has achieved iconic status for preserving the Union, ending slavery, and putting the United States on the path to racial equality. By the coincidence of the calendar, Monday marks the national holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr., another hero of the civil rights movement. Obama, in fact, will be speaking in front of the same National Mall where King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963.
In a very compelling way, Obama, the first African-American president, is the embodiment of that dream.
But it is Lincoln who has captured Obama's imagination. The new chief executive will take his oath of office on the same Bible that Lincoln used in 1861, and Obama is following part of the route Lincoln took to arrive at the capital for his inauguration, with stops in Philadelphia, Wilmington, Del., and Baltimore. Obama's aides say he will borrow from Lincoln—whose 200th birthday is celebrated this year—some fundamental concepts, notably that America does in the end listen to its "better angels," and that anyone in the land of opportunity truly can rise to the top and even become president. The theme of the inauguration, "A New Birth of Freedom," is taken from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address in 1863.
Obama also will talk about the need for America to unify and sacrifice for the common good, as Lincoln did. Obama, in fact, has been studying Lincoln's second inaugural address, delivered on March 4, 1865, during the final weeks of the Civil War. One of the lines that has struck Obama, friends say, as it has struck so many over the generations, was Lincoln's poignant admonition: "With malice towards none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations." He hopes to make a similar appeal for conciliation.
After his address, Obama will take up residence in the White House, which was built partly by African slaves in the early 1800s. The fact that a black man will now live there as he serves as America's commander in chief is a testament to the power of hope in American life—the dreams of Lincoln and Martin Luther King finally achieved, and a theme of Obama's presidential campaign from the start.
Yet one of the most interesting facts about the Obama phenomenon since Election Day has been the dearth of attention given to his race. During the campaign, there were many media reports and polls raising questions about whether America was ready for a black president. But since Obama won, the race issue has gotten very little attention. In fact, it has seemed irrelevant to most Americans as they worry about the financial collapse and hope that Obama will fix the economy as quickly as possible, pollsters and political strategists say. Al From, founder of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, says the economic issue is so overpowering that it has crowded out racial sensitivity and prejudice, at least for now.
Obama has been careful to avoid portraying himself too frequently as the first African-American president. He prefers to bill himself as a president who happens to be African-American, and the country seems to like that formulation. Overall, he has made a point of positioning himself as the champion of the middle class, no matter what color a person may be. And most Americans seem to think that's precisely the right approach.