A beard and a stovepipe hat could hardly have made it plainer. Barack Obama now occupies a unique place in American history, but his ascension to the presidency was carefully modelled on a giant from its past, Abraham Lincoln. The 44th U.S. President retraced the 16th’s train journey from Philadelphia to Washington, stopping in the same communities to make speeches. He made the official theme of his inauguration “A New Birth of Freedom,” borrowing a line from the Gettysburg address. At six minutes after noon on Jan. 20, he took the oath of office on a Bible belonging to the Great Emancipator. And the celebratory lunch served in the Capitol afterwards consisted of that other Illinois president’s favourite foods, served on replicas of Mary Todd Lincoln’s china.
For a man who is expected to change so much, such backwards glances were a telling choice. A deliberate referencing of the darkest period in the country’s history. A reminder, not of triumphs and glories, but of struggle and sacrifice. And a stark acknowledgement that America’s incandescent dream has been largely forged from the ashes of its collective nightmares. “Obama is unlike many of our presidents, someone who has read history and who thinks he can learn from history,” says Doris Kearns Goodwin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning political historian. “And Lincoln has become the man whose spirit he most wants to summon.”
Goodwin should know. Her current bestseller, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, features an admiring cover blurb from the new President—“A remarkable study in leadership.” And since Obama first surprised her with a cellphone call in the spring of 2007 to discuss the book, they have spoken frequently. Many presidents have admired the man who led the country through the Civil War, she says, but few have read, or thought as much, about him. “Lincoln has clearly become a person in his heart and mind.” The attraction has many facets—a common passion for writing and oration, their shared Illinois backgrounds, the resonance of America’s first black President fulfilling the promise of the man who set the slaves free. But it runs even deeper, Goodwin believes. “When we first talked it was mostly about Lincoln’s emotional strength, how extraordinary it was that this man was able to have a certain kind of serenity and quiet confidence during this crisis,” she says. Now it’s other things: how the 16th president was able to form a cabinet from “the strongest and most able men” regardless of their political differences. His knack for communicating complex challenges to the public and still imparting the sense of optimism they craved. His courage in the face of adversity.
The challenges that President Obama faces are substantial: a global economic crisis, two grinding wars, the erosion of America’s standing in the world, a shaken faith at home. And the expectations for his success are even greater. He has promised to work for peace in the Middle East, bring Iran to the table, and defeat the Taliban and their terrorist allies in Afghanistan. His ambitious domestic agenda includes a massive expansion of public health care, a shift toward green technologies and energy self-sufficiency, and a pledge to provide help for struggling homeowners, along with tax breaks for low- and middle-income earners. All steep hills to climb, even in prosperous times, made even harder to conquer by spiralling unemployment, a staggering stock market, and a trillion-dollar hole in the U.S. budget.
“Even to say that these expectations are unrealistically high is an understatement. It’s gone over the top,” says Joan Hoff, the former director of the Center for the Study of the Presidency in New York City, now a research professor of history at Montana State University. “He cannot solve the problems we currently face in the next four years. There’s no way in hell.” While he’s clearly not the first president to have to contend with the age of the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle, Obama has harnessed the power of that technology in a way that may end up complicating his life. He is a global mega-celebrity, Hoff notes, his every move and utterance closely scrutinized. (The World Wide Web slowed to crawl on Tuesday as people all over the globe tried to download video and news reports of the inauguration.)
And the very qualities that have stoked these expectations and turned Obama into such a phenomenon—his charisma, inspirational oration, and brains—may end up being curses, rather than blessings. In a country that has developed an almost pathological distrust of its “elites,” Obama is the first openly intellectual president since Woodrow Wilson, argues Hoff. “We love dummies, not smarties in our political system,” she says. “It’s a tricky line he’s going to have to walk”
In fact, many suggest that the 44th President might be better off seeking inspiration from another one of his revered predecessors, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. When FDR took the oath of office in March 1933, he faced an even greater economic crisis—25 per cent unemployment, a stock market that had lost 90 per cent of its value, the shuttering of banks and widespread failure of businesses, with millions reduced to waiting in the breadlines. And while the inspirational words of his inaugural address, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” have lived on, it is his accomplishments over four difficult terms stretching through depression and global war that assured his place in history. “Franklin Roosevelt was a buoy for the American people,” says Mark Updegrove, author of the newly released Baptism by Fire: Eight Presidents Who Took Office In Times Of Crisis. Coming into office, like Obama, on the heels of a supremely unpopular Republican president, Herbert Hoover, FDR turned his personal popularity and strong mandate to his advantage, setting a dizzying pace during his first 100 days in office, pushing a remarkable 15 bills through Congress. It was that tone, more than the initiatives or reforms, that gave Americans hope, says Updegrove, enhanced by Roosevelt’s masterful use of the technology of the day—radio and newsreels—to communicate his message. “It restored confidence and spoke of good things to come,” he says. “The blessing for Barack Obama is that he enjoys the same type of goodwill from the American people.”
The early indications are that Obama has already absorbed that lesson and intends to put it in play. The need for immediate and far-reaching action to meet the country’s many challenges was the central theme of his inaugural address. “We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions—that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America,” the new President intoned. And he added a thinly veiled warning to his political opponents, that they could find themselves on the wrong side of history should they seek to tie his hands. “Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions—who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans,” he said. “Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.”
However, in poll-driven U.S. politics, such admonitions are probably not even necessary. Eight out of 10 Americans have a favourable opinion of Obama as he takes office, according to a new ABC News-Washington Post poll. Almost three-quarters of the public trust that his proposals will help reverse the economic downturn. And 71 per cent say that his convincing electoral victory has given him “a mandate to work for major new social and economic programs.” Allan J. Lichtman, a political historian at American University in Washington, says that at present, Obama enjoys almost unfettered power. “Congress is just like Wall Street—it operates on fear and greed. And right now, they are too afraid of standing in front of that freight train named Obama.”
As a keen student of history, what the new President also seems to have grasped is that the calamities he faces also provide him with unique opportunities. Crisis has long been the crucible of greatness, and almost all in the pantheon of American political heroes—Washington, Lincoln, FDR, Kennedy—were severely tested. “Great moments make great men,” says Mark Updegrove. He cites Teddy Roosevelt, who won a place on the side of Mount Rushmore for his crusades for social justice, the Panama Canal, and winning the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize, as perhaps the only revered U.S. president to have governed in “non-challenging” times. It’s a select club that Bill Clinton, for example, will never join, despite his early promise and vast personal popularity. His accomplishments will be judged too few, argues Updegrove, and his presidency was fatally tainted by the Monica Lewinsky scandal. “The times were just not on his side.”
Doris Kearns Goodwin takes a similar view of the obstacles and opportunities in Obama’s future. “There’s a reason why so many of our greatest leaders have been wartime presidents,” she says. “In a time of crisis they have both terrible challenges but also greater opportunities to really move the country because people come together.” It’s a phenomenon that Obama well understands and fully intends to harness, says the historian. “It gives him an opportunity to do more things than he would otherwise be able to do in our separation-of-powers government.”
What Obama may want to keep in mind is that the cheering throngs, sky-high polling numbers and editorial endorsements can be short-lived. In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, George W. Bush had an 89 per cent approval rating. By the time he left office this week, it was somewhere around 30 per cent, and only 16 per cent of respondents said he will go down in history as an “outstanding” or even “above average” president. Indeed, Herbert Hoover, a former secretary of commerce and global hero for his efforts to feed the starving people of Belgium during the First World War, seemed destined for greatness when he ascended to the presidency in 1929. “The newspaper accounts were just glowing,” says Allan Lichtman. “They said, ‘the one thing we won’t have to worry about with Herbert Hoover is the economy.’ ”
The stock market crash of October 1929 quickly changed all that. And as the economy imploded, Hoover seemed incapable, or unwilling, to take meaningful action—in 1931 alone, 2,300 banks collapsed in the U.S. Haunted by the starvation he had witnessed in Belgium, the president refused to visit the soup kitchens that dotted the land. And rather than listen to the public’s complaints, he insisted in continuing to deliver dust-dry lectures to the electorate. (“I can’t imagine that the American people aren’t willing to listen for an hour to the subjects that are vital to their lives,” he once told his exasperated advisers.) He was soon the most-hated man in the country, his very name synonymous with failure. The cardboard and tin shantytowns were called “Hoovervilles,” the newspapers the poor huddled under “Hoover blankets.” Time magazine labelled him “President Reject.” Vast portions of the public came to believe rumours that he had a hand in one of the era’s greatest scandals, the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby. It was a transformation that haunted him for the rest of his long life (he died in 1964 at the age of 90). “The fall from those lofty expectations added to his woes and personal anxiety,” says Lichtman.
And it’s an example that Obama should heed for more than a couple of reasons. Hoover too was a great admirer of Lincoln, reports one of his biographers, Richard Norton Smith. His White House was stuffed with mementoes of the 16th president. And when he travelled overseas, Hoover even carried a steel engraving of the Great Emancipator. Proof that being a keen student of history isn’t enough to guarantee that an American president will be among its successes.