Lincoln and Obama -- My Comparison

by Mario M. Cuomo Mario M. Cuomo is a former three-term governor of New York 16.02.2009

I delivered this speech in President Obama's hometown of Chicago on Friday, February 13th, the day after the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth.

It differs in one substantial way from most of the many comparisons of Presidents Lincoln and Obama that have been put forth recently. My view is that the success or failure of President Obama's presidency will have far greater impact globally than did the Lincoln presidency.

Tonight, we have come together to celebrate the unchallenged greatness of two other former presidents and to express our hope for the success of our new President, Barack Obama.

George Washington was elected and sworn in as our first President in 1789, having been chosen by the Electoral College on the basis of his military exploits, his wise and intelligent leadership of the Constitutional Convention and his strong personal attributes.

After having helped forge our small, thirteen scattered states into a nation, he served for two terms declining many invitations to stay on longer.

Much of the rest of the world had predicted that this new, unique republican democracy ─ cobbled together by a largely untrained assortment of revolutionary idealists who had defied the British Empire ─ would not survive. The "change" into nationhood they believed, was too great to be plausible.

That was more than 200 years ago.

Ever since then, George Washington has been honored as the "Father of Our Country," who unified, moderated and inspired the Constitutional Convention whose work gave birth to what has become the greatest nation in world history.

On March 14, 1861 Abraham Lincoln ─ who many historians regard as our greatest President ever ─ was sworn in.

Yesterday's celebration of his 200th birthday provided still another opportunity for many, including President Obama himself, to note all kinds of parallels between Lincoln and our newest President. Both were born and raised in modest circumstances. Both became lawyers and politicians in Illinois. Both were underdog candidates for the Presidency, with little experience as executives. Obama, like Lincoln, has superb personal gifts: a brilliant analytical mind, riveting oratorical and writing abilities.

Obama's embrace of Lincoln should come as no surprise. Lincoln's popularity and achievements make him irresistible and his eloquence makes him easy to quote.

And so politicians of both parties regularly seek to claim the mantle of Lincoln in ways big and small. Unfortunately, the comparisons are often distorting, as when both Liberals and Conservatives claim him as one of their own.

Lincoln is too complex, too profound, too valuable to be distorted the way he often is. But it would be even more unfortunate, however, if we were so awestruck by the towering figure that history and legend have made of him, that we would be reluctant to draw upon Lincoln's ideas for dealing with some of today's challenges. That would be a foolish sacrifice of his extraordinary wisdom.

Lincoln speaks to us today as he did more than 150 years ago because he spoke to the ages -- and to the world. He does it in what may be the best words a president has ever produced, words which constantly urge us on to a course that is directed by reason, supported by principle, sanctified by history and designed to achieve the greatest good. Obama too has already demonstrated his rhetorical prowess. His brilliant and eloquent speeches have mesmerized hundreds of millions of listeners all over the globe. And they have in important ways echoed Lincoln's profound wisdom.

Lincoln saw what other less farsighted politicians could not see: that it was the immensity of the fundamental ideas of freedom and self-determination that made his young nation such a radically new adventure in government.

Lincoln saw the world clearly. He looked beyond the superficial difference that God or history or geography had imposed on the people of the world to see the essential truths that unite us all.

He understood that a respect for individual dignity and the equality of all people was the essential foundation for any democratic society. Not just for Americans, but for the whole human race.

He sympathized vigorously with the cause of democracy in other lands, in Hungary and South America and Greece.

Were he alive today, Lincoln would express no shock at learning that there are millions of people around the world, in the Middle-East, in Africa and in other places, whose poverty, lack of freedom, and lack of self-esteem make some of them dangerous enemies to those more fortunate people who they believe are oppressing them, aiding their oppressors, or denying them the help they need to earn their own share of comfort and security.

He would understand that we cannot end terror in the world today just by having the world's most powerful weapons and best fighting force, anymore than we can end crime in America simply by having the best police departments and prisons.

We have to add to this force whatever is needed to provide people in need with the realistic hope for opportunity and dignity that will quiet their rage and produce peace, here at home and across the globe. Lincoln said repeatedly that we need to be guided by a powerful sense of universal mutuality that will bring us together instead of pitting us against one another.

More than once ─ and most recently in his Inaugural Address ─ Obama has pledged to do exactly that for all the same reasons.

The parallels go on and on.

Both Lincoln and Obama have helped make significant progress in reducing the hateful implications of the racism that was institutionalized by our original Constitution. Obama seeks to make further strides in that direction.

Obama, like Lincoln, rejects rigid ideology in policymaking, relying instead on common sense, benign pragmatism and the overarching grand concept expressed in the Declaration of Independence's achievable goal of equality and opportunity.

Obama echoed Lincoln in his Inaugural Address when he said he would "carry forward the God─given promise that all are equal, all are free, all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness."

To Lincoln, and now to Obama, this is not only a lofty dream or sweet poetry designed to soothe the soul by wrapping it in high aspiration.

It was and is the attainable goal of flesh-and-blood humans who would have to come together as a nation and together find ways to provide fairly-rewarded work, education, healthcare, security in our older years, and most of all equality of opportunity and the right to be treated with dignity.

Lincoln's prose on this basic principle was true to his poetry. In discussing the role of government in seeking to achieve these goals he avoided simplistic notions of "big government" and "little government", "people on the left, people on the right" or any other simplistic shibboleths.

Characteristically, in describing government he went to the heart of the matter. I was delighted to hear President Obama yesterday repeat words of Lincoln that I have cited for more than twenty years as the best and most practical definition of "government" I've ever heard. He said: "Government is the coming together of people to do for one another collectively what they could not do as well or at all privately through the market system or philanthropy." (See "Lincoln's Hands," his original manuscript.)

In effect Lincoln was saying we should have only the government we need, but all the government we need.

And he made clear that the need for government would grow as the world's population grew larger and people's interaction became more intense.

In that straight forward practical way Lincoln respected the indispensable need for a market system economy in achieving the nation's goals, but he also realized that while the market is essential to a successful economy, it is not by itself sufficient to assure it.

For that reason Lincoln urged that government be used aggressively to meet the needs the market economy failed to satisfy.

Obama has already demonstrated clearly that he, like Lincoln, will not hesitate to call for significant governmental assistance in the effort to right the Ship of State in today's troubled economic waters.

Because Obama shares so much of Abraham Lincoln's personality characteristics and so many of his fundamental beliefs, his leadership could give today's America the chance to live the American Dream as Lincoln perceived it, an opportunity that Lincoln himself was denied by an assassin's bullet.

But Obama's leadership could mean even more -- much more than that.

While there are obviously significant similarities between Obama and Lincoln, there's a vast and important difference between the circumstances faced by the two in their first term as president.

Lincoln focused his 1861 Inaugural Address on the issue that eventually dominated his political career ─ slavery in the United States and how it would affect the Union. In the first moments of his Inaugural Address, Lincoln dismissed the other issues facing him as creating "neither excitement nor anxiety."

Obama, on the other hand, has literally scores of daunting global issues to deal with, and his success or failure will have an impact not just on our nation but worldwide.

Obama is the President and Commander-in-Chief of the dominant superpower in a world that has more than six billion human beings, many of whom depend to one extent or another on the nation Obama leads.

Never before has there been a nation with such tremendous influence on the entire planet, a planet infested with weapons of mass destruction possessed by dozens of nations, many of them hostile to one another, some already at war and others poised at the brink.

A planet threatened by the inconvenient truths of global warming, terrorism, pandemics of various kinds, regular episodes of genocide, hunger threatening millions of human beings and now a badly wounded world economy, ailing in part because of a serious recession in the United States.

It's obvious that one hundred forty-eight years of globalization with its benefits and burdens make this a very different world from the one Lincoln lived in and served, and one that will make Obama's presidency much more significant not just to our great nation ─ but to the rest of the world as well.

Lincoln's failure would have left scarred the face of America, extending the cruel tragedy of slavery and perhaps critically fracturing the Union. His success helped keep the American Dream alive.

On the other hand, Obama's failure could very well threaten unprecedented global damage. But his success could help lead not just our great nation, but much of the rest of the world into a period of enlightenment and progress never before achieved.

Realizing that, how can we expect our new President to bring to life the contemporary relevance of the Lincoln legacy?

Here are just some of the possibilities as I see them.

-- Policies dictated by common sense and benign pragmatism instead of rigid ideology.
-- Aggressive government support of emergency assistance to banks, some major industries, states, workers, the elderly, the poor and the sick. Accompanied by a large and aggressive stimulus program tightly connected to job creation.
-- A new era of political openness, candor and reasonableness by the Federal government.
-- A careful review of our expanding attacks on targets in Pakistan and our renewed commitment of American forces in Afghanistan before we make another serious mistake, this time producing what could be declared "Obama's" long, but costly and futile war in Afghanistan.
-- A new respect for the Constitution and an end of the ever-expanding "Imperial Presidency," including especially a clear declaration that wars must be declared by Congress and not by the President.
-- A call on the American people to be prepared to sacrifice, to spend prudently, and to save instead of falling in love with our credit cards.
-- Greater discipline of the financial industry with more thorough and effective oversight.
-- Trade agreements that are fair to our American workers and businesses.
-- A new foreign policy emphasis on outreach to the world starting, as Obama has, with the Muslim people, including traditional allies and less friendly nations like Iran, Syria, Russia and Cuba and a new effort to negotiate an end to hostility in Palestine.
-- Funding of the Millennium and Arab Partnership programs of economic support to Middle East nations originally adopted by former President Bush, but not funded.
-- Voluntary service programs for young Americans.

And much more.

How is President Obama doing so far?

In 1985 I gave a speech at Yale University in the course of which I said that politicians campaign in poetry, but they govern in prose ─ and the prose is much more difficult.

Once again, that proposition has been reaffirmed.

Obama's soaring rhetoric has, for now, been replaced by the more careful, practical, contentious and earthy language of negotiation, bargaining and even apology. He has had disappointments in some of his desired appointees and in his early efforts to establish bi-partisan harmony with respect to the badly needed bank and stimulus legislation that he needs to deal with the battered economy he has inherited.

As usual, meaningful "change" has proven to be an easy aspiration to promote, but a very difficult goal to achieve.

But there is no reason to be discouraged.

Heroes and greatness are born and bred by crises. Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt were all faced with multiple serious difficulties and reversals, especially in their early days.

As the world knows, they eventually succeeded and by doing so, proved their greatness.

Now it is Obama's turn.

Obama's moment in history is a unique one. On the day of his Inauguration the heart of America ─ and much of the rest of the world stirred with pride and anticipation as it watched a man of unique heritage, sparkling brilliance and eloquence, and soaring aspirations, take the oath that vested in him the awesome power of the Presidency of the world's greatest nation.

It happened in this very room as more than 300 guests celebrated the glorious beginning of the Obama Presidency.

All over the world, countless millions of people watched and heard the pageant unfold. Many of them thinking as perhaps I and you were and maybe still are ─ that there has seldom been more to trouble us, but neither has there been more to hope and to work for.

I think I know what Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt would say about Obama's moment, and it's what Obama himself continues to say: "We need to hope with all our hearts and work with all our strength, because we know, from all that our great nation has overcome and all that we have achieved, that when we really have to, YES, yes indeed, WE CAN!

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