Obama sets off on train ride to Washington

Barack ObamaHeads of StateArts and CultureHistoryElectionsTrips and Vacations

President-elect Barack Obama, delivering a pledge "to take up the work'' that the patriots of American independence started here, launched a thematic train ride that will deliver the incoming president to Washington.

In a "town hall''- styled opening rally Saturday morning, with about 200 campaign supporters invited to an address at the start of this historic day, Obama declared: "We are here to mark the beginning of our journey to Washington, and this is fitting, because it was here in this city that our American journey began.

"We are here today not simply to pay tribute to our first patriots but to take up the work that they began,'' Obama said in Philadelphia. "What is required is a new declaration of independence, not just in our nation, but in our own lives - from ideology and small thinking, prejudice and bigotry - an appeal not to our easy instincts but to our better angels.''

Before boarding the train for his "whistle-stop'' journey to the capital, Obama delivered a brief but inspirational address that evoked not only the fathers of American independence, but also the emancipator of slaves and protector of the American union whose model he will invoke all day and into his inaugural celebration, Abraham Lincoln.

"Starting now, let's take up in our own lives the work of perfecting our union,'' Obama said. "Let's build a government that is responsible to the people, and accept our own responsibilities as citizens to hold our government accountable.

"Let's all of us do our part to rebuild this country,'' he said, with words that clearly to point to the theme that will emerge from his inauguration as the 44th president on Tuesday. "Let's make sure this election is not the end of what we do to change America, but the beginning.''

With his train ride and his ceremonial arrival in Washington, Obama will evoke the same historical imagery that he employed to kick off his presidential campaign: The spirit of Lincoln.

In his journey to the capital, Obama is re-tracing the final stages of the train trip that Lincoln made to assume the presidency, beginning the fanfare for an inaugural celebration in which the Great Emancipator will be an unmistakable presence.

Obama's train will carry his traveling party of supporters through stops in Wilmington, Del., where they will pick up Vice President-elect Joe Biden, and Baltimore, Md., along the way to Washington. They will arrive in the capital on the eve of a start-studded inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial.

With an official theme for the festivities taken from the Gettysburg Address, Obama will appear at the martyred president's memorial for a televised concert on Sunday and take the oath of office on Tuesday on a Bible used by Lincoln – and even attend an official inaugural luncheon featuring favorite Lincoln foods.

Lincoln is in some ways a natural fit as model for a tall, skinny politician from Illinois who, like the 16th president, shows a gift for oratory. It is all the more so for a president whose barrier-breaking election can be viewed as the fulfillment of the long struggle for racial equality begun by Lincoln's emancipation of the slaves.

Obama's frequent use of Lincoln references goes back to his presidential campaign announcement speech on the steps of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., the site of Lincoln's famous "House Divided" speech.

During the campaign, the Obama operation used references to Lincoln to respond to criticism that the freshman senator had little national political experience and reinforce the historic nature of his candidacy without emphasizing his race.

Now, a political team that has been unusually adept at associating Obama with historic figures -- his campaign also invoked John and Robert Kennedy and, more discreetly, the Rev. Martin Luther King – is again turning to Lincoln as it sets the stage for the Obama presidency.

The pomp and circumstance of inauguration presents a moment when the public is unusually open to placing an incoming president in the broad context of American history, and the Lincoln presidency offers an example of strong presidential leadership seeing the nation through grave challenges.

The parallel has limits as a political tool, but still can help prepare the public for sacrifices and patience through difficult moments ahead as Obama confronts dire economic circumstances, two wars and the threat of terrorism, says Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist.

"They're trying to get people to focus on the history of the presidency in times of crisis," Devine said. "If they can make that comparison valid, that will give him the leeway to do the things he needs to do. He's going to have to do things that are unpopular."

The upcoming bicentennial of Lincoln's birth next month adds resonance to the parallel, with a slew of books on Lincoln pouring out, several television documentaries scheduled and celebrations planned around the country.

Since his election, Obama also has encouraged analogies to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who led the nation through the Great Depression and World War II. Obama has told reporters he was reading a biography of Roosevelt and aides have let it be known that Obama is studying Roosevelt's first 100 days, even the words and tone Roosevelt struck.

But Lincoln is the predecessor whom Obama has most consistently and most directly invoked since he began his campaign for the White House. He closed his campaign announcement speech with words from Gettysburg, calling for "A New Birth of Freedom" – a phrase that has now become the official inaugural theme – and made no fewer than three references to Lincoln in his victory speech at Chicago's Grant Park.

When CBS anchor Katie Couric asked Obama last January what book besides the Bible he would find most essential in the Oval Office, he answered with a Lincoln biography: Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

He turned again to Lincoln during a "60 Minutes" interview shortly after election when asked how he was preparing for office. "I've been spending a lot of time reading Lincoln," Obama responded. "There is a wisdom there, and a humility about his approach to government."

But the Obama operation's sometimes heavy-handed attempts to invoke Lincoln and his supporters' efforts to compare him with a president that many historians consider the nation's greatest leader has struck some as anything but humble.

Princeton historian Sean Wilentz wrote last year that comparisons of Obama to Lincoln are "absurd" and "tortured."

"To say that a guy who hasn't served a day in the presidency is Lincolnian is ridiculous," Wilentz said in an interview last week. "Lincoln didn't even become Abraham Lincoln, at least as we know him, until he was president."

Obama is not the first incoming president to try to establish connections with celebrated predecessors. Bill Clinton summoned Thomas Jefferson by arriving in Washington for his inaugural via Monticello, Jefferson's home. Shortly after taking office, Clinton made a pilgrimage to Franklin Roosevelt's Hyde Park home as he sought to build support for a jobs program.

Though Obama is the first president to take the oath of office on the Lincoln Bible, several recent presidents have been sworn in on the Bible used by George Washington, among them Dwight Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush.

Lincoln used the very train trip that Obama is re-tracing to do the same thing, traveling during a stop in Philadelphia to Independence Hall to give a speech connecting his vision for the country to the principles of the founders. Lincoln often invoked Jefferson, a favorite of his, according to David Blight, a Yale University Lincoln scholar.

That sense of history and of his predecessors was an important facet of Lincoln's political genius, Blight says. And it is a trait Blight also sees in Obama's public speaking, particularly addresses that the president-elect gave in Philadelphia on race relations and in Selma, Ala., on his generation's relationship to the civil rights leaders of the 1960s.

"It's an ability to see historical circumstance," Blight said. "Presidents always invoke history. Candidates always invoke history. But they often don't do it in a meaningful way, because they don't know how. This guy does."

If Obama's interest in the past includes a fascination with Lincoln, so much the better, argues Goodwin, the author, who was invited to Obama's Senate office to discuss the former president.

"There's no better mentor for a president to look to than Lincoln's leadership," Goodwin said. "Somehow, Lincoln has gotten into his heart and mind, and that can only be for the good."

Mike Dorning reported from Philadelphia, Mark Silva from Washington

mdorning@tribune.com

mdsilva@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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