Opinion: Barack Obama and the Abraham Lincoln comparison

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It was bound to happen.

The new man in the Oval Office, the first African American president in American history, came to office just weeks before the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, whose Emancipation Proclamation freed blacks from slavery. So many in the media, academia and political world have been drawing parallels.

In celebrations throughout this Presidents Day weekend, President Obama acknowledged that the 44th president owes something to the 16th. As Obama said Thursday night in Springfield, Ill.:


It’s a humbling task, marking the bicentennial of our 16th president’s birth -- humbling for me in particular because it’s fair to say that the presidency of this singular figure who we celebrate in so many ways made my own story possible.

There are, in fact, some parallels. Both had distant fathers and were raised in families of few means. Both had curiosity, devouring studies. Both became lawyers and settled in Illinois. Both got their start in Illinois state politics, served only a short time in Congress and upset political giants in their long-shot bids for the presidency. Lincoln narrowly bested William H. Seward and Obama, well, remember Hillary Rodham Clinton? Funny thing is, both Seward and Clinton were U.S. senators from New York.

Of course for many, the singular comparison is that both Lincoln and Obama are marvelous orators, given to soaring rhetoric that can lift a nation at a time of war and economic hardship.

So CNN might be forgiven for morphing their faces, the six-degree-of-separation thing. Take a look.

And it was probably inevitable that some reporter would ask White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs whether the CNN photo meld was stretching the parallels too far.


MR. GIBBS: I’d love editorial control of one of the cable networks, if that’s -- (laughter.) No, look, I -- look, I think as the president said today, we’re all -- we all each day live with -- in a society because of many of the tough and courageous decisions that President Lincoln had to make a long time ago. But this president isn’t seeking to compare himself with I think what many believe is one of the two or three greatest presidents that this country has ever had. There are decisions and stresses that President Lincoln faced that I think many would hope aren’t faced by many of our presidents as we go forward. I mean, there are parallels I think that make it hard for some to ignore: the Illinois factor, spending roughly the same amount of time in Springfield and the same amount of time in Congress. But I don’t -- I think the parallels don’t go a whole lot beyond that.

Gibbs also disclosed that Obama gave him ‘this spiffy new penny,’ a commemorative coin showing Lincoln’s log cabin. Gibbs said his 5-year-old son Ethan is ‘fairly obsessed now’ with studying the presidents.

When we walked into the Oval Office when he was in the White House about a week and a half ago, we were looking into the president’s study and he says, ‘Dad, that’s John Quincy Adams.’ And I said, ‘Are you sure?’ And he says, ‘Dad, he was the sixth president of the United States.’ So he’s ahead of me on the presidents stuff.

Read the text of Obama’s speech on Lincoln at the Capitol below.

-- Johanna Neuman

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February 12, 2009

Remarks of President Barack Obama, Lincoln Bicentennial Celebration, United States Capitol

It is an honor to be here -- a place where Lincoln served, was inaugurated, and where the nation he saved bid him a last farewell. As we mark the bicentennial of our 16th President’s birth, I cannot claim to know as much about his life and works as many of those who are also speaking today, but I can say that I feel a special gratitude to this singular figure who in so many ways made by own story possible -- and who in so many ways made America’s story possible.


It is fitting that we are holding this celebration here at the Capitol. For the life of this building is bound ever so closely to the times of this immortal President. Built by artisans and craftsmen, immigrants and slaves – it was here, in the rotunda, that union soldiers received help from a makeshift hospital; it was downstairs, in the basement, that they were baked bread to give them strength; and it was in the Senate and House chambers, where they slept at night, and spent some of their days.

What those soldiers saw when they looked on this building was a very different sight than the one we see today. For it remained unfinished until the end of the war. The laborers who built the dome came to work wondering whether each day would be their last; whether the metal they were using for its frame would be requisitioned for the war and melted down into bullets. But each day went by without any orders to halt construction, and so they kept on working and kept on building.

When President Lincoln was finally told of all the metal being used here, his response was short and clear: that is as it should be. The American people needed to be reminded, he believed, that even in a time of war, the work would go on; that even when the nation itself was in doubt, its future was being secured; and that on that distant day, when the guns fell silent, a national capitol would stand, with a statue of freedom at its peak, as a symbol of unity in a land still mending its divisions.

It is this sense of unity, this ability to plan for a shared future even at a moment our nation was torn apart, that I reflect on today. And while there are any number of moments that reveal that particular side of this extraordinary man -- that particular aspect of his leadership -- there is one I’d like to share with you today.

In the war’s final weeks, aboard Grant’s flagship, the River Queen, President Lincoln was asked what was to be done with the rebel armies once General Lee surrendered. With victory at hand, Lincoln could have sought revenge. He could have forced the South to pay a steep price for their rebellion. But despite all the bloodshed and all the misery that each side had exacted upon the other, no Confederate soldier was to be punished, Lincoln ordered.

They were to be treated, as he put it, “liberally all round.” All Lincoln wanted was for Confederate troops to go back home and return to work on their farms and in their shops. He was even willing, he said, to “let them have their horses to plow with and … their guns to shoot crows with.”


That was the only way, Lincoln knew, to repair the rifts that had torn this country apart. It was the only way to begin the healing that our nation so desperately needed. For what Lincoln never forgot, not even in the midst of civil war, was that despite all that divided us -- north and south, black and white -- we were, at heart, one nation and one people, sharing a bond as Americans that could not break.

And so even as we meet here today, at a moment when we are far less divided than in Lincoln’s day, but when we are once again debating the critical issues of our time -- and debating them fiercely -- let us remember that we are doing so as servants to the same flag, as representatives of the same people, and as stakeholders in a common future.

That is the most fitting tribute we can pay -- and the most lasting monument we can build -- to that most remarkable of men, Abraham Lincoln. Thank you. ###