President Obama’s tax deal with congressional Republicans may well turn out to be a defining moment in his presidency. This is less because of its content than what it tells us about Obama himself and his politics.
During the 2008 campaign, many observers compared Obama with Abraham Lincoln. Obama encouraged this, announcing his candidacy in Springfield, Lincoln ’s home, and taking the oath of office on the Bible Lincoln used in 1861. (He trumped his predecessor, however, by having two preachers speak at his inauguration. Lincoln managed to be sworn in twice without hearing from a single minister.)
Many comparisons between Lincoln and Obama have no historical merit. One that has validity is that both made their national reputations through oratory rather than long careers of public service. Lincoln held no public office between 1849 and his election. Obama served briefly in the Illinois legislature and U. S. Senate but had no significant legislative accomplishment. It was speeches – of considerable eloquence and moral power – that propelled both into the national spotlight.
Obama’s rather petulant response to liberal critics of his tax deal, however, reveals a fundamental difference between the two men. Obama accuses liberals of being sanctimonious purists, more interested in staking out a principled position than getting things accomplished. Lincoln, too, faced critics on the left of his own party. Abolitionists, who agitated outside the political system, and Radical Republicans, who represented the abolitionist sensibility in politics, frequently criticized Lincoln for what they saw as his slowness in attacking slavery during the Civil War. In 1864 one group of Radicals even sought to replace Lincoln with their own candidate, John C. Frémont.
Lincoln, however, was open-minded, intellectual curious, and willing to listen to critics in his own party – qualities Obama appears to lack. Lincoln met frequently in the White House with abolitionists and Radicals and befriended Radicals like Charles Sumner and Owen Lovejoy. Obama has surrounded himself with yes men. Alternative views – on the economy, the nation’s wars, etc. – fail to penetrate his inner sanctum. Lincoln saw himself as part of a broad antislavery movement of which the Radicals were also a part. Obama has no personal or political connection to the labor movement, or even, although it seems counter-intuitive, the civil rights movement – the seedbeds of modern Democratic party liberalism.
Lincoln was not a Radical and never claimed to be one. But he recognized that on core moral issues, particularly the need to place slavery on the road to extinction, he and they shared common ground. Obama appears to view liberal critics as little more than an annoyance. He has never made clear what moral principles he is willing to fight for.
Every major policy of Lincoln’s regarding slavery during the Civil War – military emancipation, enrolling black soldiers in the Union army, amending the constitution to abolish slavery, allowing some African-American men to vote – had first been staked out by abolitionists and Radicals. This is not why Lincoln adopted them, but it does reveal a capacity for growth that Obama has thus far failed to demonstrate. In the end, this may turn out to be the greatest disappointment of Obama’s presidency.