Lincoln, Obama, And Political Moderation

Hat Tip To Uncle Dick

President Lincoln has long-held a special place in my mind, and on my bookshelves.  As my Uncle knows from back-and-forth writing on political topics I often use Lincoln as my foundation for an argument.  Abe Lincoln remains what I think a leader is all about.  Lincoln embodied the Office of the President and moved the nation to his will in shaping the outcome of the Civil War.

Now E.J. Dionne puts the current Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in historical perspective, and uses Lincoln as his benchmark.  This is a great read.  President Obama might heed this advice.

Eventually, Lincoln grew weary of being caught in the middle and seeing his overtures to the South rejected. The government, he observed at one point, “cannot much longer play a game in which it stakes all, and its enemies stake nothing.”

And so he finally issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863. Hostilities commenced on April 12, 1861, with the South’s attack on Fort Sumter, so Lincoln took his time before embracing his role as the Great Emancipator. Obama, who even three months ago was seeking compromise with his congressional opponents, might understand.

Now comparing anything with Lincoln and the Civil War requires a paragraph full of caveats. So: No, we are not approaching civil war, and no, the issues we confront now aren’t as morally momentous as slavery. And lest conservative readers get bent out of shape, I am not saying that Obama is Lincoln. FDR vies with Lincoln for greatest president, and even he wasn’t Lincoln.

But the political parallels are striking. Lincoln was always aware that getting too close to the abolitionists risked losing the political center of his time. Obama also cares about the center and has been wary of his party’s left. Lincoln believed in reason and conciliation even with enemies who had taken up arms against the government he led. They wouldn’t be conciliated — and Obama has had no better luck with less fearsome opponents.

In the meantime, as Foner points out, “abolitionists and Radicals” were pushing public opinion in the North to see that ending slavery was a necessary step toward winning the war and reuniting the nation. Their “agitation,” Foner writes, “helped to establish the context within which politicians like Lincoln operated.”

And so has the agitation of Occupy Wall Street begun to change the context of our discussion. Politicians and commentators who had been silent about economic inequality and the excesses of the financial sector are finally facing up to economic injustice and the irresponsibility of the financial elites. In the meantime, Obama’s moderation has won him absolutely nothing. Having done much to save Wall Street and the banks, he receives in return only ingratitude and criticism.

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