The Comparisons Between Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln

What will a new president from Illinois learn from the old one? Historian Matthew Dallek takes a look.

19th November 1863: Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States of America, making his famous 'Gettysburg Address' speech at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery during the American Civil War. Original Artwork: Painting by Fletcher C Ransom

Abraham Lincoln making his famous 'Gettysburg Address' speech.

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Finally, Lincoln was also probably our most literary president in terms of both the written and spoken word, and Obama figures to rank somewhere in that group. When Obama assumes the presidency, his first memoir, Dreams From My Father, will become the most eloquent book written by a president in modern times. Obama's aides have repeatedly referred to him as his own best speechwriter (Obama has said the same thing), indicating that like Lincoln, Obama understands the power of presidential oratory.

Gettysburg and Lincoln's second inaugural are powerful examples of the enduring influence of presidential rhetoric to mold public perceptions and attitudes. As Obama made clear in his Springfield announcement speech, he grasps what his opponents (Hillary Clinton and John McCain) never understood—that oratory is among the most powerful inspirational tools for rallying people behind a candidate or a policy idea.

Like Lincoln's best speeches, Obama's Iowa caucus victory speech, his address on race in Philadelphia, and his convention speech on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" address could be documents that students will read decades from now. Lincoln, Obama approvingly said, "tells us that there is power in words."

It may seem strange that a president from the 19th century would inspire Obama—the second president of the 21st. But Obama's affection for Lincoln and his efforts to grasp the secrets to Lincoln's enduring hold on the imagination of the American people strongly suggest that in addition to Democratic icons like FDR and the Kennedys, Lincoln will have his own special place in Obama's thoughts as he tackles the monumental challenges that await him come January.

Matthew Dallek is a visiting assistant professor at the University of California Washington Center.