McManus: What would Lincoln do?


In the rest of the country, it may be just another movie, but in Washington, Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” has become a political Rorschach test.

It seems as if every pundit in the capital has gone to see the masterful biopic about our 16th president, and — surprise — they all found something to support their views about contemporary politics.

The analogies are hard to resist. The movie is set in the first months after Lincoln won a second term, facing an unruly lame-duck Congress. Over the objections of risk-averse aides, the president decides to seek passage of a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery, and proves willing to cut almost any corner to gain his objective.


What does that tell us about the choices before a newly reelected President Obama and a lame-duck Congress wrestling with a year-end deadline over taxes and spending cuts?

David Brooks of the New York Times, a moderate conservative and the capital’s resident optimist, pronounced the film a song to “the nobility of politics.”

“It shows that you can do more good in politics than in any other sphere,” he wrote, but “only if you are willing to stain your own character in order to serve others — if you are willing to bamboozle, trim [and] compromise.”

Bloomberg political columnist Al Hunt, a pragmatic centrist, argued that the movie’s message is that the key to statesmanship is old-fashioned horse trading. “Our representatives are hired by the voters not to be priests or philosophers, but to be politicians,” Hunt wrote.

Wrong, protested liberal Greg Sargent of the Washington Post: Lincoln’s lesson for his successors isn’t compromise but resolve. “History was shaped largely by Lincoln’s intransigence at the right moments,” Sargent wrote.

About the only Washingtonian who hadn’t weighed in yet was our current president, who saw the movie in the White House screening room with Spielberg and actor Daniel Day-Lewis among his guests. So, on Tuesday, I asked spokesman Jay Carney about Obama’s reaction.


“The president thinks Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’ is both an excellent movie and a vivid reminder that our 16th president was not just a brilliant orator and statesman but a masterful politician,” Carney told me in an email. But he declined to tell me exactly which Lincoln lesson the president took away: the one about clinging firmly to ambitious goals or the one about accepting almost any tactical compromise on the way there.

In fact, though, Obama offered his views on Lincoln last year. In response to criticism that he hadn’t fought hard enough for the things he believed in, Obama cited Lincoln’s tactical flexibility.

“I think it’s fair to say that Abraham Lincoln had convictions. But he constantly was making concessions and compromises,” Obama told voters at a 2011 town meeting.

He then noted that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free all the slaves, and that even the subsequent 13th Amendment, the subject of Spielberg’s film, was only a partial step on the road to civil rights.

“If Abraham Lincoln could make some compromises as part of governance, then surely we can make some compromises when it comes to handling our budget,” Obama said.

Of course, that was the Obama of 2011, only months after the Republican tsunami of the 2010 congressional election. In those days, it looked as if the country had taken a sharp turn to the right. Obama’s reelection was far from reassured, and the Senate was widely expected to fall into Republican hands in 2012.


But that’s not what happened. Obama fought back and won reelection, more or less by sticking to his guns — as Lincoln did in 1864. And the Democrats, to their surprise, gained two seats in the Senate.

In the weeks since the election, Obama has continued to sound somewhat Lincolnesque: firm on his main goal — a fiscal deal that includes raising taxes on the wealthy — but flexible on how to get there.

And here’s where Obama might want to draw a lesson from “Lincoln.” When the 16th president decided to aim high and seek a constitutional amendment banning slavery, his secretary of State, William Seward, advised against it as too risky; there were better uses of the president’s political capital, he said. “Why tarnish your invaluable luster?” But Lincoln plunged ahead. “I like our chances,” he said.

Obama has that risk-taking side too. In his first term, the issue was healthcare reform. His chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, played the part of Seward and argued for smaller, incremental measures. Obama rejected the advice and risked his presidency on a big, ambitious bill.

We don’t know yet what choices Obama has made on his second-term goals beyond the immediate priority of seeking a deal on taxes and spending. But as one moviegoer to another, I’ll offer him some advice: Take Lincoln as a model and aim for the biggest, most ambitious bargain you can get.


Follow Doyle McManus on Twitter @DoyleMcManus