This week marks the 145th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, and Barack Obama has let it be known that he's reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals—a study of Abraham Lincoln's most powerful cabinet officers and how Lincoln managed to use them in winning the Civil War and preserving the Union. In his first and only post-election press conference, Obama added for good measure that he is rereading some of Lincoln's writings—"always an extraordinary inspiration."
Back when he announced his candidacy in Lincoln's former home of Springfield, Ill., in February 2007, Obama repeatedly invoked Lincoln's legacy: "Abraham Lincoln...had his doubts. He had his defeats. He had his setbacks. But through his will and his words, he moved a nation and helped free a people. It is because of the millions who rallied to his cause that we are no longer divided, North and South, slave and free."
FDR's first 100 days, JFK's dashing wit and style, and Bill Clinton's former senior aides have all been in the news a lot lately as influencing Obama's burgeoning presidency. But Lincoln, more than any of his other predecessors, has provided Obama with the greatest inspirational model of how to lead Americans and how to govern in a time of crisis.
Obama and Lincoln share a state, and almost every president seems to love the "tall, gangly, self-made Springfield lawyer," as Obama once called him. But Obama's affinity for Lincoln goes far beyond the simple issue of common geography and the widespread love of Lincoln generally.
Obama apparently wants to model himself after Lincoln as a unifying national figure—a repairer of the breach. Obama is looking to Lincoln as a brilliant politician who understood the public's mood, the temperaments and desires of friends and foes alike, and when to strike out in bold new directions. Goodwin's overlooked subtitle, "The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," is a clue to why Obama would be drawn to his 19th-century predecessor.
Like Obama, Lincoln arrived in Washington with scant political experience. But he was able to figure out how to lead in wartime. Obama sees his presidency as an opportunity to overcome a bitterly divided politics that has dominated since at least the 1960s. He has written of his ability to bring people of diverse backgrounds together and expressed his desire to make progress on common challenges instead of descending into the petty bickering of the politics of the recent past.
Just as Lincoln sought to achieve a measure of national redemption and racial reconciliation, Obama has sought, in Lincoln's famous words, "to bind up the nation's wounds." Obama's riff on red America vs. blue America is echoed in Lincoln's earlier refrain about how "a House divided against itself cannot stand."
Indeed, Lincoln stands as perhaps the pre-eminent presidential symbol of reconciliation and unity on a national scale. Obama, who in almost every major address since 2004 emphasizes this theme, clearly wants to follow in Lincoln's steps as an almost redeemer in chief.
Then, of course, there's the issue of the Civil War and race relations.
Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on New Year's Day, 1863. He initially said that the war was being waged to preserve the union—not as a struggle to end slavery. During the war's first two years, Lincoln was wary of moving too far too fast and adopted a politically moderate position on the slavery question. "Lincoln...realized that any assault on slavery would have to await a change in public attitudes," Goodwin writes. "All his life, Lincoln had exhibited an exceptionally sensitive grasp of the limits set by public opinion."
Obama wants to imitate that Lincolnesque "sensitive grasp." He has identified a bold and possibly breathtaking reform agenda, ranging from economic recovery to energy independence to universal healthcare. He cannot undertake all these reforms simultaneously, and he'll have to figure out how and when and how quickly to move on each of these big-ticket agenda items. If Obama gleans anything from Lincoln's presidency, it is likely to be a finer feel for how to balance the forces of political necessity and public opinion against the power of moral conviction and doing what he believes is right for the country.
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.