Monday, January 12, 2009

An Open Letter to Everyone On the Internet

Dear Pundits,

Please stop comparing Barack Obama to Abraham Lincoln. At this point, you are grasping at straws.

I understand they are both widely revered men who crafted relatively bipartisan cabinets as they entered the presidency during a moment of great potential national transformation. But isn't every new election one of these moments? When has a candidate not referred to his candidacy as "historic" or "coming on the brink of great change"? Remember when Gore-Bush was the Biggest Deal Ever? Yeah, so was Kerry-Bush. And they were pivotal moments, to be sure, but my point is that obviously a new president will bring about a change in leadership. Obama's campaign theme of hope and change wasn't, in retrospect, all that revolutionary or insightful; it simply capitalized what the American people already felt and desired following eight years of Bush, and repeated those sentiments until they became accepted as facts of our national consciousness. It was simple psychology and wonderful campaigning.

Lincoln entered the presidency at a time when our nation was literally splitting apart; we were on the brink of civil war, and the debate over slavery had reached its zenith. By contrast, Obama won the election because he took states that have recently been Republican strongholds--hello, Virginia--and found a way to captivate an entire nation unified in its global fatigue and economic danger. The situations that met the budding presidencies Lincoln and Obama were both difficult, to say the least, but hardly comparable. If anything, Obama is more like FDR, a Democrat taking over for a Republican whose failed policies led the nation into depression. But even FDR didn't have to grapple with a losing battle overseas. In that sense, I guess Obama is rather Nixonian. But Barack Obama isn't really like Richard Nixon at all, in any way.

You could look at almost any president (except for you, Polk, you scallywag) and point to some aspect of his candidacy that's "just like Obama." But if history has taught us anything, it is that America is a regenerative nation, with each generation facing unique and previously unfathomed challenges to its national livelihood. Obama can certainly learn from the past, as can anyone, but as platitudinous as it sounds, his focus will have to be on the future if he wants to succeed. Insisting that he is "just like" Lincoln, FDR, or anyone else--assigning him a template that does not and cannot apply--only hinders that foresight.


P.S. Yes, Obama and Lincoln are both from Illinois. But it's hardly the same state now as it was two centuries ago. And I presume Obama's been trying to distance himself from his, um, unclean home state as of late, anyway.

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