It would be natural for Barack Obama to begin his second term with a chip on his shoulder, emboldened by a reelection victory that, viewed through his eyes, ratified his agenda and punished his rivals for extremism. It also would be a mistake.
Starting with his inaugural address on Monday, the president might want to consider the example of another former Illinois lawmaker who rose from obscurity to assume the presidency at a time of peril. Like President Obama, Abraham Lincoln had to triangulate between harsh obstructionists from an opposing party and radicals from within his own. Lincoln won reelection and faced the heady task of Reconstruction.
While Lincoln’s times and tests were more challenging than those of today, his second inaugural address is a model for its modesty. Lincoln’s overall tone was humble, wrote historian Evan Thomas for The Daily Beast, “that of a man who has learned from harsh experience.”
Obama’s liberal allies have every right to demand a confrontational approach. After all, he defeated GOP nominee Mitt Romney by wide margins in both the popular vote and the state-by-state Electoral College tally. And the GOP won’t meekly bow: The stated goal of the Republican Party is to block Obama at every turn.
“Turns out, the American people agree with me,” Obama said at his first news conference of 2013. In other words: I won—deal with it.
Understandable as that approach may be, it’s not the path to greatness.
In a way, Obama’s challenge Monday resembles that which faced Lincoln on March 4, 1865: When addressing a melancholy nation, how do you give people hope? Polls show that nearly two-thirds of the public believes that the country is on the wrong track. Six of every 10 Americans believe harder economic times are ahead. While the president is incredibly popular as a person, less than 30 percent think he can change Washington or fix the economy.
Americans are distrustful of government, of which the presidency is a living symbol. Obama took the oath of office amid great hype and hope for politics transformed, bearing promises of a new way. “The time has come,” he said in 2009, “to put aside childish things.” Four years later, our leaders are still acting like kids.
The national debt threatens future generations. Climate change threatens the globe. Joblessness, gun violence, antiquated immigration laws, and the decline of social mobility are stiff challenges, too.
“Obama has to make that heartfelt plea for bipartisanship and shared sacrifice,” said Brian Carso, associate professor of history and government at Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa. And then there’s the matter of humility.
“The Obama folks tend to behave like morally superior beings who came down from another planet,” added Carso, who worked in Republican Gov. George Pataki's administration in New York and at the 2004 Republican National Convention. “It think he has to step beyond that and lead in terms of getting some bipartisan support.”
If so, it’s worth considering four passages from Lincoln’s second inaugural address that might guide Obama today:
1. “At this second appearing to take the oath of presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first.” Lincoln’s point was that the national crisis was so obvious to his countrymen that he didn’t need a long speech to address it. A spare 700 words, the speech is now carved into the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. The memorial should be a reminder to Obama that great presidents don’t fail because of their block-headed rivals; they succeed in spite of them.
2. “Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.” This is as close as Lincoln came to playing the blame game. By contrast, Obama’s aides (if not the president himself) are obsessed with GOP intransigence. Their loathing clouds long-term judgment. White House advisers provide chapter and verse on how the GOP will block the president’s agenda, but they have a hard time articulating how he’ll overcome his harsh experience—and what his ultimate legacy will be. Even when their assessment of the GOP is accurate (and it often is), the short-sightedness is detrimental.
3. “ … but let us judge not, that we be judged.” If Lincoln could beg forgiveness of slavery supporters, the world wouldn’t stop if Obama urged liberal commentators to cool their jets.
4. “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds....” Whether he works with or around Republicans, Obama will be judged on whether he binds the nation’s wounds and finishes his work.