An Obama Presidency for Lincoln’s Two-Hundredth Birthday

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Mr. McElvaine is Professor of History at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi. Among his books are What’s Left?—A New Democratic Vision for America and Eve’s Seed: Biology, the Sexes, and the Course of History. He is currently completing a book manuscript, ChristianityLite: How to Get to Heaven without the Hassle.

The next president will be inaugurated just over three weeks before Abraham Lincoln’s two hundredth birthday. It will mark a most appropriate moment for the nation to return to the ideals and principles from which it has strayed so far under the leadership of what so plainly is no longer the Party of Lincoln.

The disastrous war in Iraq, growing violence in Afghanistan, unprecedented deficits and debt, a slowing economy, soaring energy prices, global warming, the loss of respect and support for the United States around the world, the concentration of wealth among the hyper-rich, the lack of health insurance, the destruction of retirement programs, illegal immigration . . . there are ample reasons for the American people to desire a change.

Americans are fed up with the politics of division. In April, George W. Bush proclaimed himself “The Decider.” He got a few letters wrong. He is really The Divider.

The last thing our nation needs in 2008 is another 50-50 election of bitter red/blue division. What America needs is a leader who practices the politics of multiplication rather than division.

The person who has the greatest potential to be the Multiplier has just returned from a highly successful visit to Africa: Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.

Given the racial history of our nation, the proposition that a black man could win decisively and bring much of the nation together seems preposterous. But Sen. Obama has proven himself to be a unifier. His is a quintessentially American biography. The child of an immigrant father and an American-born mother, Sen. Obama believes in the American Dream because he has lived it. Diversity is what America is all about, and he is diversity.

Most successful politicians in recent years have sought to widen chasms; Barack Obama seeks to build bridges across them. He speaks of “a politics of hope instead of a politics of fear.”

A significant fraction of the American electorate would vote against any black candidate. But Obama would win almost all of the Democratic base that voted for Al Gore and John Kerry and would be very likely to carry Ohio, giving him an Electoral College majority. Beyond this minimum scenario for victory, fascinating possibilities open up. Young people are the age group most disillusioned with President Bush and his war. Yet they do not vote in large numbers. An Obama candidacy would be likely to energize young Americans and really “rock the vote.”

And the prospect of the first black president would be likely to produce a phenomenon similar to the first free election in South Africa. Blacks would register in unprecedented numbers and the percentage of black registrants who actually vote would soar. Add this upsurge in black voters to the minority of whites in the South who vote Democratic and many southern states—including Mississippi—could become winnable for the Democrats.

Democrats must reconnect with religious Americans. There is a growing movement on the part of genuine Christ followers to fight back against those in the misnamed Religious Right who have hijacked Jesus. Sen. Obama speaks eloquently of reclaiming religion for the progressive purposes it should support. His is a voice of reconciliation, while those of the wolves in sheep’s clothing who claim to be “Christians” are voices of recrimination.

The Irreligious Wrong speaks the language of Jesus while totally distorting the meaning; many progressives advocate the meaning of Jesus, but speak in what is a foreign tongue to religious people. Obama speaks the genuine message of Jesus in the language of religious people. While Republicans have used faith as a wedge to divide Americans, Obama uses faith as a means of uniting people of different faiths and of no set faith.

But is Obama too young to be president? He is already older than Theodore Roosevelt and John Kennedy were when they became president and in November 2008 he will be 47 and a year older than Bill Clinton was when he was elected in 1992.

Obama was opposed to the Iraq war from the start, showing a better understanding of the perils of that wholly misguided foreign adventure than either President Bush and his advisors or most of the other potential 2008 Democratic presidential candidates had. George W. Bush is pro-choice on war; on wars of choice, Barack Obama is pro-life.

Consider what a positive signal would be sent to the world if the first African-American president—and a Christian with a Muslim name and heritage—replaced George W. Bush. In terms of the United States reclaiming its moral position and respect in the world, it might well be that the cure for Osama is Obama.

The symbolism of the first African-American president being inaugurated less than a month before the nation celebrates the bicentennial of the Great Emancipator should be enough to dampen the eyes even of political cynics whose tear ducts have long seemed to be vestigial organs.

Our nation has been engaged now for nearly a half century in a second Civil War, one that began in the 1960s, a century after our first one of the 1860s. Sen. Obama can, 200 years after Lincoln’s birth, begin to accomplish what Lincoln called for in his second inaugural address just before the end of the first Civil War: “to bind up the nation’s wounds . . . to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” Barack Obama can do what Lincoln hoped to do in 1865: transform what had become the Disunited States back into the United States and restore America to a position of respect around the world.

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Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Mr. Thomas: Your counterfactual is interesting but unoriginal and does not dig you out of the hole you dug yourself into with your absurd campaign to refight the Civil War in cyberspace using a mixture of half-truths and pure fabrications. I can see that, after Holocaust Denial and Global Warming Denial, there is a need for a less nutty encore, but blaming Lincoln for the Civil War won't fly anywhere north of the Mason Dixon line, or in self-respecting History departments south of it either.

High school history textbooks often use, or at least were using when you should have been reading them, something called timelines. These are handy little things, helpful, for example, in exposing historical delusions. Here is an example, courtesy of Google. Note that your last comment suggests that 1897 happened before 1861:

The first shots of the Civil War occurred when the Star of the West was fired upon by Cadets of the Military College of South Carolina The Citadel (from Battery Greg on Morris Island) on January 9, 1861.

Lincoln was inaugurated in March 1861.

Lincoln never regained consciousness and was officially pronounced dead at 7:22 a.m. April 15, 1865.

May 18, 1897: The Dow Chemical Company is incorporated, based on Herbert H. Dow's plan to manufacture and sell bleach on a commercial scale.

I am rather busy these days, but if you would like to send me every green piece of paper you find in your wallet that has "Five dollars" and the face you love to hate engraved upon it, there are a lot more timelines which I could help you find, in order to educate yourself on basic American history.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Imhofe is indeed laughable and his views on climate change irrelevant to earth science. Ask any real scientist not in the pay of Exxon-Mobil. A Great American Disgrace as disastrous as your Israeli-expansionist lapdog idol George W. Bush.

And bringing up that denialist fool is laughably irrelevant to any discussion of the political career of Barack Obama.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

"Obama can do what Lincoln hoped to do in 1865: transform what had become the Disunited States back into the United States and restore America to a position of respect around the world" concludes this article.

But, Lincoln was not elected president in 1865 to transform the Disunited States. There was no presidential election in 1865, and Lincoln was not elected in 1860 to do what he did in 1860-65. He probably would never have been elected president at all, were it not for the unusual and catastrophic circumstances of 1860. Although the country came out better and stronger for it eventually, the Civil War which
was inextricably link with Lincoln's presidency is nothing any loyal American today would want repeated. It is theoretically possible that had some miraculous change of heart in the southern states, in say 1850, led them to peacefully and voluntarily agree to a gradual phase out of slavery, that Lincoln might have still have a noteworthy career in national politics, and possibly even become an inspirational president. But that sort of sheer counterfactual fantasizing is hardly a basis for assessing the merits of possible presidential candidates a century and a half later.

The analogy presented here thus breaks down irrevocably for all sorts of reasons.

Meanwhile, Obama shows little indication of being ready for a serious try at the presidency in 2008, so early in his national career. He may well have the right stuff to do well at the job eventually. But not because Lincoln's presidency offers any very viable precedent.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

The Civil War is over and the good guys won. America would never had had the power to commit self-defeating blunders half way across the globe under the Chickenhawk Bush administration if the other side had won that conflict in 1861-65.

The Civil War began because brutalizing slaveholder elites forced their states to break off on their own, in order to hold onto their barbaric system of human bondage. There would never have been a Civil War under Lincoln had they been willing to compromise to the extent of not insisting on the everlasting right to not only enslave half their population but also spread this disgraceful practice, whose terrible legacy cripples America to this day, to new territories.

Lincoln had his faults, but is not to blame for the Civil War. Not any History book this side of the KKK.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Read my prior post again, and look up the word fact in a dictionary.

Lincoln first appeared on the five dollar bill in 1914. Try explaining how he rose from the grave after 49 years to "put his face" there.

Try to list 5 important recognized scientists (and their university or corporate affiliations and key peer-reviewed publications) who have ever had anything positive to say about the scientific "knowledge" of Imhofe, Titanic Deck Chair Rearranger of American Climate Policy.

I have joined no Zionists. But the idol you worship, Chickenhawk Waffler Bush, has betrayed America to become the lapdog of Israeli incompetents too cowardly to be Zionists.

Renee Estoista - 12/1/2006

I remember sitting down with my mom to listen to one of Sen. Obama's speeches sometime during early senior year in high school. It was done so more out of obligation than actual interest. However, once he began speaking, I couldn't help but fall captive to his speech and ideas about democracy. I'm not too politically involved but I was so easily able to follow Sen. Obama with everything he was saying in that one televised speech. I agree with what is being said in this blog. I believe the youth will be able to support Sen. Obama and he will raise the number of black voters significantly if he runs for presidency. I have joined multiple groups supporting Barack Obama for president and as we grow closer to 2008, it seems like the likelihood of this actually happening may come true. He'll definitely have my vote.

Thomas Martin Sobottke - 11/25/2006

The Lost Cause version of history offered by Frederick Thomas in order to first discredit Mr. Lincoln, and then by extension the presidency of any future African-American, shows a disconnect that is more fundamental than anything Mr. Thomas was reacting to.

Repsectfully I must point out that for Abraham Lincoln the slavery issue and his eventual emancipation of the slaves was no afterthought.

He told many people well before his presidency--many years before, that he could not think of a time when he was not opposed to slavery. Even as a boy with his family back in Kentucky days this was true.

Like practically every white person in America at the time, he began the war thinking that Blacks were inferior to Whites. But even as he continued to accept this previous commonly accepted wisdom, his views were evolving.

When Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclaimation on January 1, 1863, he told the men assembled in his office that afternoon that if he were remembered for anything, it would be this act. He knew this was no mere war measure, even though technically that is what it was. Politicans do not achieve permanent fame for signing a mere war measure. He knew that this act was a statement for human freedom that would resound for generations to come.

And the reaction of Jefferson Davis and his government demonstrates that they understood this too.

Lincoln's First Innaugural Address merely promised that he would defend U.S.Government installations. No president who had sworn an oath to protect the Constitution of the United States could have done otherwise. That same address bluntly told Southerners that they could not have a civil war unless they themselves "were its authors."

The firing on Ft. Sumter on April 12, 1861 and the secession of the Southern States were acts that precipitated a bloody war.

History has judged the that Union victory was a righteous result.
The passage of time has ratified this judgement a hundred-fold.

Can Mr. Thomas actually see a divided America, and one that in its Southern section would continue to support human slavery as being a more desirable result?

Abraham Lincoln was right. He was right in pointing out the fundamental disconnect between human slavery and THE great founding principle of our United States in which the great Declaration bringing these states into Union declared that "all men were created equal" and they all were entitled to human rights which were "unalienable."

I'll stick with Mr. Lincoln, and perhaps turn toward Mr. Obama and place Mr. Thomas' arguments where they belong: in history's dustbin.

Hurrah for the Union! Hurrah for Emancipation! and Hurrah for the realization of the great promise of this nation in the coming century! Liberty and equality for all! Justice for all!

Thomas Martin Sobottke

D Garrett - 11/19/2006

I think Obama is positioning himself to run as a vice-presidential candidate. If Al Gore chooses to run as a presidential candidate and focuses on the environment plus a middle or the road policy on other matters, I think the Democrats win in 2008.
Hillary is too divisive; too many plus/minuses, including who is her husband currently sleeping with. Obama is too young to be considered a serious presidential hopeful. After he serves as vice-president and demonstrates leadership qualities, he very well could become the first African American president of US.

jason ssg - 11/11/2006

Actually, global warming and ice ages are linked... ironic how things that seem opposite to laypeople can actually be causally interrelated... but, this isn't a science board, after all... obviously... there is no such thing as a global warming debate amongst respected independent scientists.

Just as there is no debate amongst respected historians as to much of what is said in the comments above... it's pretty obvious, really. I'll leave the not-insane to sort it out.

john crocker - 10/8/2006

"James Inhofe presides over the committee responsible for the environment."
and Ted "Big Truck" Stevens presides over the committee responsible for regulation of the internet.

Neither of these positions seems to have informed the Senators involved.

I hope the pipes aren't too clogged with movies and this internet reaches you.

BTW the global cooling scare was caused by sulfate aerosols. Ironically the cooling caused by these aerosols actually masked the longer term warming trend.

Frederick Thomas - 9/30/2006

James Inhofe presides over the committee responsible for the environment. Given this, if I were you, I would withdraw my earlier silly statements.

Frederick Thomas - 9/28/2006

Mr. Clark:

Of course you are right that I said "Dow" instead of "DuPont," which was formed in 1802 and became huge by supplying gunpowder and expolsives to the Union side of the Civil War. I figured you knew that but failed to mention it.

Who but Lincoln was to blame? He was leader of the war party, which was supported richly by warmongering manufacturers in the worst case of a money driven war in US history.

For this, 660,000 died, which is fine with you, I guess because it fits with the myths underwritten by those who funded it. You can't look behind them, not even for a minute.

Historical myths are more common than historical facts, because they are more profitable to the author. You should know that.

Since when does a few cadets firing at a ship in South Carolina give Lincoln the authority to declare war on ALL of the Southern states, and invade them ALL? So much for your time lines!

Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot all put their faces on currency or coin. Does that mean that Lincoln's face on the five legitimizes him, or forgives the killing of 660,000 Americans?

And on the environment, Sen Inhofe, Chair of the Environment etc. Committee made a recent Senate speech about global warming which you should read. You may become informed.

Inhofe traces the 6 climate scares pushed by the New York Times and other mainstream publications over the last 120 years, all claiming support from "the scientists."

Three of these scares predict a new ice age, and three catastrophic warming! They alternated the two. The editors apparently felt this would hype newspaper sales. Inhofe then debunks all of Gore's blather, point by point. Read for yourself:;id=263759

As for the epithets you stoop to when eloquence and knowledge fail you, I can only presume that you have joined the Young Zionists and killed your first Palestinian child. Congratulations!

samuel D. Martin - 9/26/2006


Frederick Thomas - 9/26/2006

Mr. Clark:

Are you seriously arguing that 2/3 of a million dead kids is OK, just peachy, out of a total population less than a quarter of today's? Can your double standard even conceive of such a loss?

Don't give me this ahistoric c*** about "the South started it."

The South did not summon 75,000 Northern volunteers to invade itself. The South did not invent a system of taxation which made the average Southerner pay double the average Northerner, and the South did not attack itself.

Northern plutocrats and radicals of Mr. Lincoln's party did are responsible for these things, and started the war mainly to enrich themselves; indeed they were duly and magnificently enriched.

Sorry if the truth hurts. The corrupt side won, the venal side won, the greedy side won, the big business side won, the carelessly murderous side won. The right side did not win, and 660,000 kids died as a result.

Nice goin', Honest Abe!

But the real point is that there never should have been a war, and Lincoln could have led this bunch of greedy, radical n'er do wells to exercise one of the many other alternatives had he wanted to.

He did not want to. He wanted profits for Dow Chemical, Bethlehem Steel and other businesses which heavily backed the war. It was for this war that Republicans became known as the party of big business, in case you did not know.

The South, like the rest of the countries of the Americas, was prepared to gradually educate and then free the slaves. Davis and Lee had already begun this, very seriously and privately.

The process would have ended with total emancipation by about 1880, just as Brazil and 18 other American countries did during that exact same period, without war, and without a whole generation of dead kids.

And it would have resulted in a black populace which was reasonably educated or tarde skilled and able to support itself, rather than being poorer than the poor whites who predominated after this miserable war.

The blacks did bad, really bad, from this war, in every respect. But the plutocrats did really, really well.

Are you sure you want to position yourself on their side?

Gonzalo Rodriguez - 9/26/2006

Mr. Clarke, well said. This article reads like an eighth-grade history essay, with ideas parroted right out of political sound bytes (and just as superficial and simplistic).

It also illustrates the sheer idiocy of the understanding of race among many in this country. I heartily admire and respect Mr. Obama, and would vote for him in a second. But I won't do it because he's black -- I'll do it because he's brilliant and capable statesman with good ideas.

To advocate for someone based primarily on their race -- how is that different than opposing them solely for their race?

And furthermore, it's pathetic that people are turning Obama into an "African-American" without qualifying what that means. Bringing Lincoln into this discussion is absurd enough, but it also reminds us that Obama is not descended from slaves. He is half-white and the son of a Kenyan immigrant, who abandoned him and his mother.

But because he has slightly dark skin, I suppose many will imagine him to be a "representative" of the majority African-American population in this country -- with their own historical and cultural traditions, descended from West African slaves, Christianized, freed, and then segregated for another 100 years after that. Does Obama magically have a unique insight on the crucial issues facing African-Americans, simply because of his color? Should we expect him to listen to hip-hop? Does he have a unique viewpoint on reparations? Should he himself receive reparations, even though not a single one of his ancestors was a slave?

Many (though not all) on the port side of our political culture still understand race in a very 19th-century fashion -- rather than condemning the "savage," they convert them into "noble savages," mystifying and reifying racial differences as innate.

I have never even been to El Salvador, where my grandparents came from. Can I "speak for" Salvadoreans? I don't feel comfortable doing that. But I'm sure some big-hearted leftist academic will write an article someday telling people to listen to my unique Latino wisdom.

Ed Schmitt - 9/26/2006

I'm not sure that voting for Obama on the grounds of holding up his African ethnicity as a positive category is just as racist. On your second point, however, I say amen. I have a lot of respect for Prof. McElvaine's other work, and I'm open to hearing the case for Obama's symbolic and strategic advantages, but there is a case for earning your stripes, as Mr. Shenkman made here -

Vernon Clayson - 9/25/2006

Professor McElvaine is near maudlin in his sentiments on Obama and maudlin doesn't sell to voters, and neither does references to Lincoln, the hatred for him led to his assassination and not all were displeased. No one presently on the stage, and especially Obama, can bring the two major political parties together. The struggle for power is bigger than utopian dreams of partisanship. Barack Obama is a bright young man with promise but a uniter in a nation as divided as this? There's no chance he will ever be president and he should be grateful. Given the tremendous individual responsibility of the presidency and the tendency of the public and the media to pounce on any misstep, no matter how trivial, he could easily go from being a novelty to being --- Ray Nagin.

Jason B Keuter - 9/25/2006

I don't know that Abe Lincoln's victory in 1860 signified some kind of era of good feelings. If Obama is to repeat Lincoln's success, he would have to plunge us into a protracted violent conflict that led to a major social revolution in a major region of the country. Further he would have to run on the explicit promise of having no intention of creating such a revolution against people who were convinced he was lying. In other words, he would have to run on a peace platform and start a huge war on false pretenses in order to fulfill long held moral convictions that he downplayed just to get into office.

Frederick Thomas - 9/25/2006

Mr. McElvane wishes the US

" return to the ideals and principles from which it has strayed so far under the leadership of what so plainly is no longer the Party of Lincoln."

Really? Does Mr. M. have any clue of the policies and principal interests behind Lincoln? Lincoln's policies were NOT to free slaves, except as an afterthought to help a failing war effort. Rather he warred upon 40% of his own citizens, in the ultimate denial of human rights.

Lincoln's policy was to support inefficient Union manufacturers who needed high tariffs to survive, and to preserve the South as an exploited tax slave, given that the South paid 70% of federal taxes on the eve of war, from only 40% of the polulation.

I understand that at Gettysburg Lincoln gave a fine speech, but presidential speeches and actions are often at odds. Lincoln's party sent 660,000 kids to their deaths (versus less than 3,000 in Iraq and Afghanistan.) Lincoln destroyed the entire economy of a large part of America for over 100 years. Who wants to emulate this rolling presidential disaster? Is Mr. McElvane unable to count dead Americans?

Mr. McElvane then shows his hand by throwing in every wacky George Soros inspired hand wringer, all of which are factually wrong:

"The disastrous war in Iraq,"

Last time I looked it is the most efficiently conducted war in US history, with the least US casualties, and the fastest conversion to democracy of the defeated country.

"growing violence in Afghanistan,"

True, a few ragged Taliban are presenting themselves to be slaughtered in slightly greater numbers, but the violence there remains less than that in Washington, DC.

"unprecedented deficits and debt,"

Actually, tax collections are at an all-time high, and the deficit is shrinking, because of sound economic policy including (horrors!) tax cuts.

"a slowing economy,"

Since when? Looked at the stock market recently? A softening housing market is a good thing, not a bad one, for homebuyers.

"soaring energy prices,"

Read the papers. Energy prices are falling so rapidly that traders fear instability in the markets and a crash down to 20 per barrel.

"global warming,"

Bush did this? HAH! Besides, there is no proof whatever that CO2 gas anything material to do with it, other than fostering rapid plant growth. The IGCCC is a UN organ, and most of the hand-wringers are members of it. Is there still any doubt among the sentient population that UN officers will do anything to get their hands on American money? Besides, any credible astrophycist can tell us that increasing solar activity is the likely culprit, not CO2.

"the loss of respect and support for the United States around the world,"

add: "among Socialists"

"the concentration of wealth among the hyper-rich,"

add: who pay virtually all of the taxes in this country.

"the lack of health insurance,"

add: for some, most of which are covered by other means.

"the destruction of retirement programs,"

Name one, sir, then ask what George Bush had to do with it.

"illegal immigration"

the only active proponents of illegal immigration are democrats.

Essentially, Mr. McElvane has shown himself simply another leftist ideologue, whose words are disconnected from factual reality.

Mr. "Osama Obama" as Kennedy put it, seems to be a nice kid, but he has never run anything in his life, and most of us think that a little experience id helpful in a job like this.

Nancy REYES - 9/25/2006

I like Obama, but it is just as racist to suggest I vote for him because he is black as it is to suggest I shouldn't vote for him because he is white.
And, of course, Obama, like Tiger Woods, is only "half" black.
Those of us with biracial children are leery of denying the dual heritage of our children...