WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama called on AmericansThursday to follow Abraham Lincoln's example of showing generosity topolitical opponents and valuing national unity - above all else. At aceremony in the stately Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol marking the 16thpresident's 200th birthday, Obama said he felt "a special gratitude" tothe historical giant, who in many ways made his own story possible.
OnThursday night, Obama, the nation's first black president, will deliverthe keynote address at the Abraham Lincoln Association's annual banquetin Springfield, Ill.
As lawmakers and guestslooked on, Obama recalled Lincoln's words in the closing days of theCivil War, when the South's defeat was certain.
Lincoln "could have sought revenge," Obama said, but he insisted that no Confederate troops be punished.
"AllLincoln wanted was for Confederate troops to go back home and return towork on their farms and in their shops," Obama said. "That was the onlyway, Lincoln knew, to repair the rifts that had torn this countryapart. It was the only way to begin the healing that our nation sodesperately needed."
A day after House and Senateleaders agreed on a costly economic stimulus plan that drew scantRepublican support, Obama said, "we are far less divided than inLincoln's day," but "we are once again debating the critical issues ofour time."
"Let us remember that we are doing soas servants to the same flag, as representatives of the same people,and as stakeholders in a common future," Obama said. "That is the mostfitting tribute we can pay and the most lasting monument we can buildto that most remarkable of men, Abraham Lincoln."
It was by no twist of fate that Obama was there.
Whenhe launched his presidential campaign, he did it in Abraham Lincoln'shometown. When he arrived in Washington, he followed the train routeLincoln used in 1861. When he needed a Bible for his swearing-in, Obamapicked Lincoln's.
Heck, even Obama's lunch on Inauguration Day was modeled after Lincoln's favorites, right down to the seafood stew.
Clearly, the 44th president wants Americans to know how much he admires the 16th.
Presidentialhistorian Doris Kearns Goodwin thinks that reflects Obama's genuineaffinity with Lincoln - for his willingness to learn and grow, hisability to communicate with the nation, his insistence on havingstrong-willed, independent advisers.
"SomehowLincoln has worked himself into Obama's heart and mind, and it's a goodthing to have Lincoln as your mentor," said Goodwin, PulitzerPrize-winning author of "Team of Rivals," a Lincoln book that Obamasays has influenced his thinking on how to govern.
Butfor a new president trying to reassure people during another time ofcrisis, highlighting Lincoln can also be a signal to the nation: If oneskinny Illinois lawyer could guide the country through the Civil War,then maybe another one can handle today's problems.
Ina sense, Obama has associated himself with one of the most popularpolitical brands in Illinois, says Bruce Newman, an expert on politicalmarketing at DePaul University. Evoking Lincoln reassures voters thatObama shares their values and will try to emulate their hero.
Obama is hardly the first president to display an affection for Lincoln.
TeddyRoosevelt, for instance, was sworn in wearing a ring that contained astrand of Lincoln's hair, and he surrounded himself with busts ofLincoln. Woodrow Wilson and Richard Nixon identified with him, too.
HistorianRichard Norton Smith said admiring Lincoln is practically routine forpresidents, particularly embattled ones. "I'm not sure how much itmatters to voters. I suppose it's better to associate yourself withLincoln than Millard Fillmore," he said.
But noother president can match the emotional connection of a black manfollowing in the footsteps of the president who ended slavery. It helpscomplete what Smith called "the unfinished part of the Lincoln agenda" - bringing America closer to real racial equality.
Then there are the more mundane links.
BothLincoln and Obama were lawyers who served in the Illinois Legislature.Both had brief Washington careers before running for president. Bothstarted out as relative unknowns who were criticized as inexperienced,yet managed to win the White House.
Smith, whowas the first director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library andMuseum, sees a potential risk in Obama's public admiration of Lincoln.
"Tothe extent that you are seen as wrapping yourself in the Lincoln flagor, worse, presenting yourself as a latter-day Lincoln, you set the barterribly high and you invite legitimate criticism," said Smith, now ascholar in residence at George Mason University.
But both he and Goodwin said they think Obama has successfully walked that tightrope so far.
"It'snot that he's comparing himself with Lincoln," Goodwin said. "It'srather that he's just saying, here was a man who ... faced a time ofcrisis and came through it so extraordinarily, and I can learn fromhim."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times