Obama with supporters in Springfield, IL on Feb. 10, 2007. Photo credits: Getty Images.
Very early in the Democratic primary, I suggested to a friend afflicted by the euphoria typical of Obama supporters that her candidate simply lacked the experience to be president of the United States. Her answer? He has as much experience as Abraham Lincoln had when he became president.
Never mind the odds of Barack Obama demonstrating comparable character, judgment, and leadership skills to Abraham Lincoln are pretty remote; there is also the reality that today’s world is a much more dangerous and complex place than the world Honest Abe knew back in the 19th Century. We drive cars, for cripe sake, and we’ve got weapons of mass destruction.
In the end, however, euphoria triumphed over common sense or even a modicum of skepticism in the 2008 election and in the midst of a global financial crisis and two wars, Americans elected president the least qualified candidate in the field.
Now President-elect Obama, educated at Columbia and Harvard, continues to encourage his adoring public to associate him with the self-educated Lincoln who studied law in the evenings by firelight.
A few contemporary historians offer a reality check or two.
In a post titled Straw Man? Historians say Obama is no Lincoln, Harris and Burns at Politico write:
‘“In Barack Obama's appearance last month on CBS's ‘60 Minutes,’ the conversation turned to the president-elect's long-time love of Lincoln.
‘“There is a wisdom there,’ Obama told interviewer Steve Kroft,’ and a humility about his approach to government, even before he was president, that I just find very helpful.’
“Humility? Obama's frequent invocations of Abraham Lincoln — a man enshrined in myth and marble with his own temple on the National Mall — would not at first blush say much about his own instincts for modesty or self-effacement.
‘“And now there are early rumblings of a backlash to Obama's ostentatious embrace of all things Lincoln, with his not-so-subtle invitations to compare the 44th president to the 16th, the ‘Savior of the Union.’
“Simply put, some scholars think the comparisons have gone a bit over the top hat.
“Sean Wilentz, a scholar in American history at Princeton, said many presidents have sought to frame themselves in the historical legacies of illustrious predecessors, but he couldn't find any examples quite so brazen.
‘“Sure, they've looked back to Washington and even, at times, Jackson. Reagan echoed and at times swiped FDR's rhetoric,’ said Wilentz. ‘But there's never been anything like this, and on this scale. Ever.’
‘“Eric Foner, a Columbia historian who has written extensively on the Civil War era, agreed that comparing one's self to Lincoln sets a rather high bar for success, and could come off like ‘a certain kind of hubris.’
‘“It'd be a bit like a basketball player turning up before his first game and saying, ‘I'm kind of modeling myself on Michael Jordan,’ he said. ‘If you can do it, fine. If you're LeBron James, that'll work. But people may make that comparison to your disadvantage.’
“As it happens, Obama may find this an entirely apt comparison.”
‘“I'm LeBron, baby," he told a Chicago Tribune reporter at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. ‘I can play on this level. I got some game.’
“That kind of preening highlights a risk that many presidents have encountered as they gaze in history's mirror.”