The Lincoln-Like Obama? Let’s Hear Him First

by Derrick G. Jeter

At the beginning of the political season, few foresaw that the relatively unknown man from Illinois could have won the presidency. Those who heard him speak readily conceded that he was articulate and charismatic, but opposition to his nomination was formidable, having to run against battle-hardened warhorses. And in the unlikely event that he won his party’s nomination, the pathway to the White House would be obstructed by a senator with a long and distinguished political career, someone clearly more qualified. What did the man from Illinois bring to the presidential campaign? He could point to a speech or two—to a reputation as a fine talker. Yet, in 1861 the man from Illinois became the sixteenth President of the United States.


This story line could have been written for Barack Obama.


Much, probably too much, has recently been made of the similarities between Abraham Lincoln and Mr. Obama—comparisons that sometimes lead one to the conclusion that those doing the comparing either don’t know Lincoln or Obama, or both. However, some similarities between the two men from Illinois are worth noting. Both won their party’s nomination over more seasoned politicians. Both ascended to the presidency by besting better known and, in many ways, more qualified candidates. Both chose rivals to serve in their cabinets. Both were known for their oratory. And both approached their inaugurations at a time of crisis—Lincoln facing the terrible prospect of civil war and Obama confronting an economic meltdown.


It is this last similarity—the nagging national troubles at the genesis of each of their administrations—that is instructive. Besides his rhetorical abilities, many have seen Lincolnesque qualities in Mr. Obama. It would be useful, it would seem, for Mr. Obama, as he prepares to deliver his inaugural speech, to observe how Mr. Lincoln, who successfully shepherded the nation through the Civil War, addressed the crisis of disunion in his first inaugural remarks.


President Lincoln’s first inaugural is conciliatory in tone and tightly argued in structure, but this is not the salient lesson for President-elect Obama’s address because it is not in the how of what Mr. Lincoln said that is important but in the what that was said. And what Lincoln said is instructive, not only for Obama’s speech but for all presidential inaugural addresses.


Lincoln’s speech, as he so eloquently stated in the opening sentence, is about “compliance with a custom as old as the government itself . . . to take . . . the oath prescribed by the Constitution.” However, the speech is more than about mere oath-taking. The speech is about the people, about the Constitution, and about what it means to govern under constitutional authority so as not to impede the right of the people “to be their own rulers.” Lincoln’s inaugural address, quite simply, is about the president’s obligation to adhere to constitutional limitations and the people’s “constitutional right of amending [the government], or their revolutionary right to dismember, or overthrow it.”


Lincoln, however, acknowledged that the Constitution, though far from being a living document, did not nor could not expressly anticipate every conceivable issue that would confront a growing nation. “No organic law can ever be framed with a provision specifically applicable to every question which may occur in practical administration,” Lincoln asserted. “No foresight can anticipate, nor any document of reasonable length contain express provisions for all possible questions.” As examples, Lincoln argued that the Constitution did not specifically answer the questions of whether the federal government or state governments had the authority to surrender fugitive slaves, or whether Congress should prohibit slavery in the territories, or whether Congress must protect slavery within those territories. Questions such as these, Lincoln concluded, sowed the seeds from which constitutional controversies sprang.


Yet no controversies should arise from those rights and limitations “plainly written”—including those limitations on presidential power. “The Chief Magistrate,” Lincoln declared, “derives all his authority from the people”—“We the People of the United States”—who expect him “to administer the present government, as it came to his hands, and to transmit it, unimpaired by him, to his successor.” It was to the people, to “the judgment of this great tribunal, the American people,” that Lincoln bowed. He accepted and praised our constitutional frame of government in which “this same people have wisely given their public servants but little power for mischief.”


Unfortunately, as Lincoln warned, if “the people [do not] retain their virtue and vigilance,” most presidents will ignore the Constitution, as Judge Andrew P. Napolitano recently argued in the pages of The Wall Street Journal. It would seem, based on provocative comments made in the past by Mr. Obama about the Constitution, that he will follow down the path of this growing tradition of inattention. But presidential disregard was not always so. Lincoln used four documents while preparing his first inaugural address: Andrew Jackson’s proclamation against nullification, Daniel Webster’s celebrated Second Reply to Hayne, which he boomed “Liberty and Union,” Henry Clay’s famous 1850 speech in which he brokered a compromise on slavery and kept the Union together, and, of course, the Constitution. What has President-elect Obama consulted while composing his inaugural speech? If not the Constitution, then his oath to “preserve, protect, and defend it” will be little more than mere oath-taking and his speech, no matter how eloquent, mere oratory. And nothing could be less Lincolnesque than that.