When President Barack Obama on a cold Winter day, stood on the steps of the Springfield Capitol, his identity with the Sixteenth President Abraham Lincoln was forever linked -- both young men with not much legislative experience; both men of Illinois; both young men who were radical in their core beliefs but abated them with the ideology of compromise and reaching out to the extremes of both sides in order to find a middle ground.
During the early days of the Obama administration many focused on his building of his team -- bringing in Republicans like Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood; offering the Commerce position to another republican and keeping on President Bush's Defense Secretary Robert Gates; as well as embracing his primary rival Hillary Clinton to become Secretary of State. This team building, like Lincoln's was dubbed "Team of Rivals" -- an allusion to Goodwin's historical account in book form. But since then the comparisons have subsided -- that is a mistake.
To truly understand Obama's leadership and his philosophy toward governing the extremes the comparison need not be ignored. To do so we miss the point and often give reason to those who called themselves the most loyal of supporters reason to pull out their hair or embark on protests of their own.
This is an indication we have missed the signs.
During the height of the Civil War Lincoln caused as much anxiety with his fellow moderate Republicans and abolitionists who had supported the young President than he ever did with his rivals. The new Republican party had built itself on the stance of ending the institution of slavery by stopping its spread and dismantling Southern States rights to continue to purchase their human property. To them, Lincoln represented the "Change they could Believe In."
In a speech in the mid 1850s, Lincoln aggressively attacked the ideology of slavery, demonizing the characterization of it being a "positive good." In that speech he struck at the core saying, "...for although volume upon volume is written to prove slavery a very good thing, we never hear of the man who wishes to take the good of it, by being a slave himself." He continues, "We propose to give all a chance; and we expected the weak to grow stronger...You mean the Whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and, therefore have the right to enslave them? Take care again. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own."
Clearly, Lincoln was the candidate for these moderate Republicans and used his rhetoric to win the party and soon the country.
But Lincoln would soon disappoint. During his early Civil War presidency he would support the idea of migrating Blacks to other lands and other countries because he for-saw now way the two races could intertwine. He would express his view that while he disagreed with the institution of slavery, he was not in favor of full equality, "a physical difference between the races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality," Lincoln would assert in a speech in Columbus, Ohio. He would subdue calls for him to aggressively work to revoke the Fugitive Slave Act. He preferred to act incrementally rather than boldly. In 1862 he said of the idea of emancipation, "I do not speak of emancipation at once, but of a decision at once to emancipate gradually."
Eventually, Lincoln would see the need for bold action -- adopting the view of recruiting freed and escaped slaves into the Army; allowing controlled areas to be a force-field against Southern slave laws and finally adopting the Emancipation Proclamation and ultimately establishing the Freeman's Bureau to be the lead toward Reconstruction. It is these later actions which have made Lincoln the "Great Emancipator." But, it is his gradual steps, which many believed helped save the Union from everlasting division. It caused furor with his base and so much angst with his political rivals that the emotion of the revolt causes his ultimate demise. But the Union was saved.
This is the context, which we must place President Obama as he ventures into the white-hot fire of the health care Debate with a Presidential Address to Congress. Throughout the debate Obama's vague stance on issues such as a "public option" has allowed his political rival to spread misleading characterizations and rile up support against loony ideas like "Death Panels." They have also labeled the President a socialist, fascists and far worse an embrace of Hitler's health care plans.
Moreover, the Left has been equally afire begging the President to rollover the opposition and push through what they believe the American people voted him into office to accomplish.
Yet, those who ponder why Obama hasn't been as radical as the Right believes him to be and the Left wishes he was, miss the point that Obama's view is he believes he was voted into office to save the Union not push an agenda. This is why he has said he believes, " the public option is something I believe is the best option to transforming health care and accomplishing the goals; yet, I do not think it is the centerpiece to the reforms we should seek."
This is as similar to Lincoln saying if he could save the Union and maintain slavery he would do that. Obama, like Lincoln, is not willing to drown the baby in the bathwater before it is tossed out.
During Obama's Congressional speech, both sides will probably hear portions they could equally applaud and sit on their hands. That is the sign of a great compromiser and a shadow of Lincoln.
Yet, this is not the 1860s and Internet influence has changed the landscape -- but if Compromise can save a country from the fallout of war; maybe it can save lives struggling from the fallout of inadequate health care.
Kapitol Hill publishes periodical columns on social issues which impact society and the African-American community in particular. Feel free to leave comments and check back for the next installment.