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Is Obama Truly Like Lincoln - As His "Team of Rivals" and Other Parallels Suggest?


Thursday, Dec. 04, 2008

As President-elect Barack Obama selects his cabinet and other top-level advisors, he is being widely hailed as having assembled a "team of rivals," a description borrowed from Doris Kearns Goodwin's book about Abraham Lincoln and the cabinet Lincoln assembled from among the powerful political figures that he had battled on the way to the presidency.

This is but one way in which Obama's victory, and the anticipation of his Administration, are linked in the public imagination to the Civil War now more than 140 years distant. And as I will discuss further below, this is altogether fitting. But while much of the linkage between Obama and Lincoln is cast in a rosy light, there is also a cautionary aspect to these ties that should not be wholly overlooked.

The Basis for the Obama/Lincoln Parallel

From the outset, it was inevitable that Obama would be considered against the backdrop of Lincoln, and he actively invited the comparison. Obama formally launched his campaign from the steps of the Old Capitol Building in Springfield, Illinois, the very place where Lincoln began his own run for the presidency. Obama's soaring rhetoric on that day, and on many since, borrowed openly from Lincoln's own exceptional eloquence. Recasting Lincoln's inaugurals for a modern-day audience, Obama called upon the better angels of our nature and the mystic chords that bind us together as Americans in divisive times.

As Obama's opponents attacked his relatively thin resume in elected office, the Lincoln comparisons deepened. Lincoln had served but a few years in Congress when he sought the presidency. It was his judgment, temperament, and political acumen - not long experience -- that guided the nation through its darkest hour. Obama's supporters, myself among them, saw similar strengths in him.

At an even more fundamental level, too, the very possibility of Obama's candidacy was tied directly to the Civil War, the end of slavery, and the enactment of the post-Civil War constitutional amendments granting persons of all races equal protection of the laws and equal access to the privileges and immunities of citizenship.

As is well-known, the road from constitutional promise to constitutional reality was long and arduous and full of backtracking and the occasional U-turn. By 1877, the Reconstruction of the South, imperfect as it was, had come to a close and the nation had sunk into decades of government-tolerated and government-sponsored racial subjugation.

It took a thousand small steps for the nation to find its way from Lincoln to Obama. Over decades of legal battles and boycotts and marches, amid sacrifice, lynchings, and even assassination, black Americans redeemed their Constitutional rights to vote, to attend desegregated schools, to live in the neighborhoods of their own choosing, and to participate in civil life on equal terms.

The landmarks on this path are legion: the early cases opening up previously all-white primaries to black voters, Truman's order desegregating the armed forces, Brown v. Board of Education, Selma, the Little Rock crisis, Martin Luther King's March on Washington, the court decisions enforcing the rule of one person/one vote, the great civil rights bills of the 1960s, the black legal and political leaders from Thurgood Marshall to Shirley Chisholm and Jesse Jackson.

Over time, changes in law were matched by changes in attitudes. Explicit expressions of racial bias became socially unacceptable. African-Americans rose to prominent positions in politics and business. Society as a whole inched closer and closer to King's dream of a world in which individuals would be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.

The Cautionary Side of the Obama/Lincoln Parallel: A Journey that Is Far From Finished

Obama's election, of course, was made possible by and reflects that very progress. To the last day, there were those who said that the so-called "Bradley effect" - the idea that many voters, in the privacy of the voting booth, simply would not pull the lever for a black man, whatever they might have claimed to pollsters - would swamp Obama's lead in the polls and vault John McCain into the White House. That did not happen and, on November 4, the death of the Bradley effect became another chapter in the long saga of the redeeming post-Civil-War possibilities and the ongoing challenge of healing the wounds of a conflict still lingering generations after the death of all of its combatants.

But for all that, the election results suggest that the Civil War still haunts us. Candidate Obama did better than his Democratic predecessor John Kerry in almost every section of the country. The one section, however, in which he did worse than Kerry - and significantly worse - is the swath of the old Confederacy that runs down the spine of the Appalachian Mountains, down to the Gulf Coast, and then across through Texas. The stubborn, unfortunate truth remains that, across most of the South, Obama commanded much less support from white voters than his less charismatic and otherwise less successful Democratic predecessor did.

One of Obama's challenges, thus, is Lincoln's unfinished business. In the hearts and minds of many in some parts of this country, the Civil War remains unfinished business. We are not yet fully one nation, blind to caste and color, indivisible. And it will take all of Obama's political skill - which is towering, as was that of the great President whom Obama self-consciously evokes - to end this conflict altogether.

Edward Lazarus, a FindLaw columnist, writes about, practices, and teaches law in Los Angeles. A former federal prosecutor, he is the author of two books -- most recently, Closed Chambers: The Rise, Fall, and Future of the Modern Supreme Court.

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