Lincoln's Lessons for Obama
by E.J. Dionne Jr.
October 20, 2011
Washington - Can President Obama take advantage of the
egalitarian sentiment let loose in the country by the
Occupy Wall Street demonstrations? Would doing so be
consistent with the moderate, conciliatory persona he
The best response comes not from polls but from history.
Eric Foner's magnificent book on Abraham Lincoln's
evolving views on the slavery question, "The Fiery
Trial," offers some surprisingly relevant lessons.
The thing to remember is that on the slavery question,
Lincoln was a moderate, not a radical. He promised in
the 1860 election to leave slavery alone in the South,
and even after the Civil War began, he tried again and
again to conciliate Southerners, believing that Southern
unionist sympathies would eventually prevail over
As a result, he was accused by his allies of "too much
tenderness toward traitors and rebels," and Lincoln
worried to Republican leader Carl Schurz that his
middle-of-the-road politics would offend both Democrats
(the conservative party of the time) and Republicans
(many of whom yearned for bolder action against
slavery). Foner summarizes Lincoln's concerns: "He
feared he was too radical for the Democrats and not
radical enough for the Republicans and would end up
without political support." Sound familiar?
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,
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 to
be America's greatest president, and even he wasn't
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. Bankers and financiers who needed the rest of
America to bail them out now respond arrogantly when the
rest of America complains about the unpaid promissory
note it holds.
My old friend Doug Schoen wrote in Tuesday's Wall Street
Journal about a poll of "nearly 200" Occupy Wall Street
protesters in New York, concluding that they are
committed to "radical left-wing policies." I'm sure
there are some radicals in the crowd, since moderates
aren't given to mass protests. But the dissatisfaction
with the privileged that the demonstrators are
expressing extends far beyond the left, and majorities
share OWS' inclinations on many issues, including the
need for the wealthy to pay more in taxes.
In their time, the abolitionists were radicals, too.
Lincoln, a shrewd politician, understood that public
opinion in the North did not fully embrace their cause
but was moving in their direction. Lincoln remained at
heart a moderate, but he abandoned moderation on slavery
when this proved to be morally and politically unsuited
to the imperatives of his moment. By following Lincoln's
example and acting against the injustices of our time,
Obama could also come to occupy the high ground.
Portside aims to provide material of interest to people
on the left that will help them to interpret the world
and to change it.
Submit via email: [log in to unmask]
Submit via the Web: http://portside.org/submittous3
Frequently asked questions: http://portside.org/faq
Search Portside archives: http://portside.org/archive
Contribute to Portside: https://portside.org/donate