This week President Obama declined to attend the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. It was a striking decision, and one that raises an important question: Has Barack Obama actually decided to pivot away from Abraham Lincoln as his role model?
The signs have been in the air longer than people realize. As a young candidate, Obama announced his presidential bid on the steps of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, where Lincoln had delivered some of his greatest speeches, certainly did not shy away from grandiose comparisons. As a fearless President-Elect, he re-imagined the 1861 train journey to enter a crisis-ridden Washington and then swore his oath on the Lincoln Bible. Clearly, Obama never backed down from a sense of history. Yet the years of obstruction, vituperation, and shutdowns have clearly taken their toll, despite a crushing reelection victory that should have felt like pure vindication. The second term has proceeded largely without any particularly noteworthy evocations of Lincoln.
The last major Lincoln sighting at the Obama White House was over a year ago, in mid-November 2012, when the president screened Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” with the director and leading members of the cast. None of the Republican congressional leaders accepted a generous presidential invitation to rub elbows with the Hollywood elite and to join in what should have been a relatively easy bipartisan celebration of America’s greatest (Republican) president. That minor episode soon turned out to be what they call in Hollywood a “preview” of coming collisions.
However, there was also another omen in that ill-fated movie premiere. More than one film critic has noted that Spielberg’s “Lincoln” appears to offer more a rebuke of hands-off “No Drama” Obama’s presidential management style. The Great Emancipator as Daniel Day-Lewis is full of dramatic and often hard-edged tactics, theatrical in his anger and fully engaged in the messy, and ethically challenged process of getting things done in Washington.
Even more than gratuitous Republican snubs, this lack-of-leadership meme has appeared to really bother President Obama. During the past year, he and his advisors show almost unbridled disdain for anyone who accuses the president of not being big enough, or Lincolnian-enough, as a leader.
When historians and legal scholars began invoking Lincoln during the crisis over the debt ceiling and government shutdown, the response from the Administration was dismissive. Leading academics such as Sean Wilentz started comparing Obama to Lincoln’s immediate predecessor James Buchanan (spoiler alert: that’s not good), and urged him to assert authority in a more aggressive style, but the administration ignored them. Some academics pushed for the president to rely on his presidential oath (the so-called “trilemma” argument from legal scholars Michael Dorf and Neil Buchanan), or the public debt clause in the Fourteenth Amendment (Wilentz), or even by risking impeachment (Henry Aaron). A “senior administration official” ridiculed all such ideas in the New York Times as “unicorn theories,” and the president steadfastly refused to consider them.
Then came the announcement a few weeks ago that the president was not coming to Pennsylvania for the anniversary commemorations of the Gettysburg Address. A ripple of criticism began to crest just around November 19, so former staffers such as Bill Burton and Jon Favreau launched a reasonably fierce, and very sarcastic social media push back, which culminated on the afternoon of what is called “Dedication Day” in Pennsylvania with Favreau (@jonfavs) tweeting about Obama’s alleged disrespect for Lincoln with this gem: “Personally, I thought the foam party in the Lincoln Bedroom was uncalled for.”
Not to be outdone in the disdain game, about the same time that day, right-wing talk shows erupted with the “news” that Obama had intentionally omitted “under God” from his video recitation of the Gettysburg Address for Ken Burn’s forthcoming PBS documentary project. Turns out that there are five versions of the speech in Lincoln’s own handwriting, and two of them don’t contain the phrase “under God” in that famous final sentence. Naturally, the filmmaker had asked the president to read one of these godless versions, the so-called Nicolay Draft (named after one of Lincoln’s top White House aides), because most historians believe it was Lincoln’s actual reading text on November 19th.
This frustrating news cycle could possibly mark the end of Lincoln mania in the Obama White House. The rest of the Civil War anniversaries are certainly less rousing after Gettysburg. The war ended with the union restored and slavery abolished, but the price that was paid in the final two years was bloody and the legacy of the subsequent reconstruction was painful.
It’s also true that history marches on. The president may have skipped Gettysburg, but he has not avoided other anniversary moments. In August, he helped honor the fifty years since Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech (in front of Lincoln’s Memorial, it should be acknowledged) and paid tribute this very week to mark the anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
The King-Kennedy connection is a revealing one. Those two had their own battle over Lincoln’s legacy. The March on Washington came about in part during August 1963 because President Kennedy had refused to follow Rev. King’s advice and issue “a second Emancipation Proclamation” to honor the 100th anniversary of that great freedom document. The year before King had actually delivered what historians David Blight and Allison Scharfstein have called “an extraordinary manifesto” to the White House, which Kennedy coolly disregarded. So King spent the first part of his famous speech (which began “Five score years ago”), talking not about his dreams for the future, but instead leveling thinly veiled criticism of Kennedy in Lincoln’s name, demanding immediate payment for freedom’s “promissory note,” which he mocked as having been marked by the federal government with “insufficient funds.”
Kennedy surely did not appreciate such sarcasm, and he avoided the Lincoln comparison in subsequent weeks. Most notably, he made the fateful decision to skip the 100th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, heading off instead to Texas for what seemed at the time to be a much-needed political fence-mending tour.
Facing implacable political enemies and absorbed by a host of bewildering policy problems, President Obama can certainly be excused for not wanting to dwell in recent months on Abraham Lincoln’s legacy. Yet I hope he finds his way toward some kind of rededication with his first and greatest political idol. Americans need Lincolnian-level inspiration and the past is the only place to receive it. Lincoln once wrote, “Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history.” These are the words that President Obama should truly take to heart.
Matthew Pinsker is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the Brian Pohanka Chair of Civil War History at Dickinson College. He is writing a biography of Abraham Lincoln, focusing on his record as a political party leader. This piece was originally published on theweeklywonk.com.