Wednesday, February 17, 2010

What Obama Can Learn From Lincoln

The following article was posted as a Facebook note on February 15, 2009. I have reposted it below, unaltered and unabridged, since its contents so accurately embody my feelings toward the president just over one year later.

President Barack Obama’s admiration for Abraham Lincoln is a well-established fact to those who have closely studied his rhetoric and career. When announcing his presidential candidacy in February 2007, he spoke from the spot where Lincoln delivered his famous “House Divided” speech and referenced the Great Emancipator four times in his speech; when he traveled to Washington for his inauguration, he chose to take the same route Lincoln had embarked upon almost a century-and-a-half earlier; when it came time to choose a meal for his inaugural party, he selected the foods that were well-known to be among Lincoln’s favorites; and when he delivered an address commemorating the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, on February 12, 2009, he did so with an eloquence and passion that made his genuine admiration for our sixteenth president quite indisputable to all of the cynics who have wished to dismiss it as being PR-gambit rather than sincere sentiment.

Yet despite Obama’s insistence that he is following in Lincoln’s footsteps, his first month in the White House has shown some rather startling deviations from the philosophy which Lincoln himself espoused. Let us start with an analysis of Lincoln’s much lauded “House Divided” speech. Most Americans recognize the famous line, “A house divided against itself cannot stand”. But do we, and particularly President Obama, understand what that line means – and more importantly, what the context was in which it was delivered?

At the time Lincoln delivered that speech, he was a politically inexperienced Senatorial aspirant from Illinois (sound familiar?) who was offering a rather unpopular prognosis on the impact of slavery on our nation’s political health. For more than three-quarters-of-a-century, the issue of slavery had sharply divided the American public, with large segments of the country decrying it as both morally reprehensible and inconsistent with the most basic democratic principles upon which America had been founded, while equally vehement portions of our country defended it with a number of rather repugnant economic, political, social, and racial arguments.

As has been the case with most contentious issues since time immemorial, politicians dealt with this one by doing their damndest to avoid it. The best and brightest statesmen that America could produce (most notably Henry Clay and Daniel Webster) spent the better parts of their careers keeping our Union together by cobbling together lukewarm compromises on the issue of slavery that satisfied no one but avoided offending any one side too greatly, and then proceeding to shoehorn them through Congress. This practice had not only prevented civil war but had managed to stifle radicals on both sides of the issue, thereby manufacturing a string of shaky stalemates on this subject that most Americans believed would prevent Civil War.

Lincoln knew better. What he recognized early on was that slavery was one of those issues for which substantive compromise was impossible. “This government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved -- I do not expect the house to fall -- but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.”

On what did he base this conclusion? For him it was one part an unusually insightful understanding of human nature, and one part common sense. In order for meaningful and long-lasting compromise to be reached on any issue, there must either be a common ground of fundamental principle and/or self-interest on which all of the parties involved can come to an agreement. Only then can a foundation be established upon which other agreements can be reached, and ultimately a peaceful and non-confrontational compromise arrived at. Lincoln understood this, and as such realized that the mutual incompatibility of what the two sides of the slavery question were fighting for – with one side arguing that financial gain and alleged racial superiority should allow them to subjugate an entire race of men, and with the other side arguing that such subjugation constituted the most un-American of moral wrongs – could never be reconciled. As such, Lincoln predicted that the two sides would eventually, one way or another, come to direct blows; that either the pro-slavery elements would force their way of life upon the rest of the nation, or the anti-slavery advocates would see that sinister institution abolished from the land.

This same principle applies to Obama’s attempts to find middle ground between the two warring factions in Congress. One side wants to eliminate, or at the very least castrate, all legislation that would create well-paying jobs, provide much-needed health care reform, or in any other way alleviate the suffering and improve the quality of life of the millions of lower-to-middle class Americans who have been significantly harmed by this economic crisis. Instead, this side wants to give all of the money that exists to given away to the people who bankroll their political careers – namely, the wealthy in this country, who in turn are motivated by a desire to hoard every penny they can and thereby create within America a permanent economic upper-class and economic underclass. They achieve this goal by passing tax cuts that are carefully crafted to only give real benefit to the wealthy, while spouting logical inconsistencies and long-discredited platitudes as justifications for their agenda.

The other side in this equation wants to end our economic crisis through the only means that history shows us will actually work. They want to spend as much federal money as necessary (which will almost certainly exceed the trillion dollar mark) in stimulating job growth, establishing affordable medical care programs, and overhauling our banking system. They want to guarantee that as much money as possible goes into the pockets of poor and middle-class Americans, who will then spend it in precisely those industries that need a massive influx of money in order to be revitalized (the rich, on the other hand, tend to hoard whatever extra money is given to them, or at best spend it on personal luxuries). What’s more, they want to make banks more publicly accountable to the people who are now, for all intents and purposes, paying for them, not merely because it is the morally correct thing to do (since when has having taxpayers spend money on a service that they can’t control NOT been in accordance with both liberal and conservative principles?), but because it will guarantee that the irresponsible and unethical behavior that got us into this mess never occurs again.

These two sides are fighting for fundamentally different things, and if Lincoln were alive today, he would understand that those differences are irreconcilable. We know as much not just from his “House Divided” speech, but from a lesser-known passage from his first State of the Union address:

In my present position I could scarcely be justified were I to omit raising a warning voice against this approach of returning despotism. It is not needed nor fitting here that a general argument should be made in favor of popular institutions, but there is one point, with its connections, not so hackneyed as most others, to which I ask a brief attention. It is the effort to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above, labor in the structure of government. It is assumed that labor is available only in connection with capital; that nobody labors unless somebody else, owning capital, somehow by the use of it induces him to labor… Now there is no such relation between capital and labor as assumed, nor is there any such thing as a free man being fixed for life in the condition of a hired laborer. Both these assumptions are false, and all inferences from them are groundless. Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration… Let them beware of surrendering a political power which they already possess, and which if surrendered will surely be used to close the door of advancement against such as they and to fix new disabilities and burdens upon them till all of liberty shall be lost.

Barack Obama is not wrong in turning to Abraham Lincoln as a guide in this most trying time. The concern that Americans should have right now is in what he sees when he looks at him. First he proposed to Congress a stimulus package that had all of its meritorious aspects preemptively watered down for conservative approval, prompting most experts to point out that he had severely inhibited his bill’s potential effectiveness. Then he allowed his enemies in Congress to further alter the measure, working so as to maximize its benefits for the wealthy and powerful while rendering it all but useless to the middle-class and poorer Americans who actually needed help. Now Obama is hailing the passed bill as a personal triumph. In so doing, he has betrayed the ideology that gotten him elected in the first place. That is not what Abraham Lincoln would have done. Our only hope lies in Obama soon realizing what it would actually mean to follow his example.

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