Why President-Elect Obama Should Follow the Example of President-Elect Lincoln

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Mr. Holzer is the author of Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter, 1860-1861 (Simon & Schuster).

We’re waking up with a brand-new president-elect.  His job will not be easy—not only the task that awaits him after inauguration day, but that which begins immediately: navigating the interregnum between now and January 20 and emerging with his country, and his own reputation, intact.  This is no easy matter for anyone blessed with the highest honor the people can bestow, yet powerless for months to do anything with all that goodwill except lose it.

As always—especially so, it seems, as we approach the bicentennial of his birth—Abraham Lincoln offers the best model.  Not only did he prove his country’s greatest president, but also one of its shrewdest presidents-in-waiting, a period of his public life too long and too casually mischaracterized as the Achilles heel in an otherwise sterling reputation.  In truth, Lincoln used what Henry Adams called “the great secession winter” to thaw public skepticism, earn sympathy (and positive coverage) from the press, infuse his reputation with gravitas, bravely prevent the spread of slavery, and ruthlessly strengthen political control over his party.

Will the next president learn from history?  The roadmap is clear enough.  Here is what the 16th president did during the weeks between his election and his inauguration, and the timeless lessons the 44th president might well learn from him.

  • Court the press.  Journalists were openly partisan in Lincoln’s day.  Newspapers openly affiliated with either the Democrats or the Republicans.  Leaders expected their own party press to support them, and opposition journals to excoriate them.  Lincoln bravely changed the rules.  He allowed a skeptical newspaper, the New York Herald, to embed a correspondent at his Springfield headquarters, where for the next four months the reporter dispatched warm, fuzzy, and usefully syndicated reports about how Lincoln increased in stature as his daily burdens grew.  This would be the equivalent of Barack Obama granting twelve weeks of unbridled access to Sean Hannity.  Lincoln never doubted his own ability to win over the press.  Another case in point: on the day he left home for his swearing-in, Lincoln gave an impromptu goodbye speech that began and ended while a pool of journalists waited in ignorance inside his train.  Aware of his slight (and missed opportunity), the President-elect calmly wrote out (and improved) the text and thus made sure a masterpiece was wisely published.
  • Get all lingering anger off your chest in the first draft of your inaugural address, then start toning it down.  Facing nothing less than disunion and rebellion, Lincoln vented with an understandably bellicose speech warning Southerners that the choice between “peace or a sword” was theirs alone.  He even had his manuscript set in type, assuming it was final.  Wisely, he then showed it to a succession of readers—not only friends and colleagues, but opponents like disappointed White House aspirants William H. Seward (a fellow Republican) and Stephen A. Douglas (a Democrat).  At their urging, he successively toned down succeeding drafts until, in final form, the speech appealed instead to the “better angels of our nature.”  By giving potential critics the sense they had participated in its composition, Lincoln guaranteed rave reviews from a broad audience.  Douglas, for one, liked it so well he held Lincoln’s hat while it was delivered, and later praised it from the Senate floor.
  • Until inauguration day, say as little as possible on policy matters.  The Constitution gives you no authority to steer the ship of state, but talking too much, too soon, can create public anxiety, unease in financial markets, and other woes.  Uncertain whether Southern States would quit the Union if he insisted on limiting slavery, and equally worried that Northern Democrats would abandon him if he failed to confront secessionists, Lincoln adopted a policy of “masterly inactivity” that discouraged extreme responses from both sides.  Yes, Deep South States began passing secession ordinances, but by insisting he would add nothing to the record beyond what the Republican Platform and his published speeches already outlined, Lincoln held the lid on a crisis that might otherwise have boiled over before he enjoyed the power to confront it himself. 
  • Don’t change core beliefs after your election.  Lincoln based his candidacy on opposing extension of slavery—no matter what.  When a rump peace convention proposed reviving the Missouri Compromise, which would have permitted slavery all the way to California, Lincoln had to choose between certain disunion and possible war on one side, and sacred principle on the other.  He chose principle.  “And,” he later put it in his second inaugural, “the war came.”
  • Take control over your political party—fast.  There are always “supporters” around secretly longing for your failure, so they might themselves run if you founder.  Take no prisoners.  Lincoln won loyalty through the power of patronage, and also by privately but explicitly warning wavering fellow Republicans in Washington to not to consider compromises on slavery extension.  “Hold fast as with a chain of steel,” he instructed.  They obeyed.  Firmness and power discourage lame ducks and political veterans who think they know best from making irreparable mischief.
  • Assemble a truly diverse Cabinet.  Remember, its members serve their greatest political and public relations purpose the day you announce their appointments (after which they need only be effective bureaucrats).  Lincoln self-confidently named not only former Republican rivals, as Doris Kearns Goodwin has shown (in truth something of a 19th-century tradition), but shrewdly balanced political and geographic backgrounds, too.  He sought out both former Democrats and ex-Whigs who now comprised the new anti-slavery Republican coalition (realizing that, after the election, he would need their loyalty more than ever).  Lincoln’s search extended North and South, East and West, to unify as many regions of the country as he could, and in the bargain he wisely repaid political debts to elector-rich states like New York and Pennsylvania (the latter the one appointment he did come to regret—the corrupt Simon Cameron—though it paid political dividends at the time).  Such considerations presaged today’s focus on race, gender, and ethnicity, and were just as often subjected to criticism.  Ignore it: take these factors as seriously as Lincoln pondered political antecedents and geography.  It’s the path to unity.
  • Don’t take your hometown to Washington; leave it at home.  Lincoln originally considered, then rejected, the notion of naming longtime Illinois loyalist Norman Judd to his Cabinet, then wisely thought better of it.  When he began his journey to Washington, friends and colleagues overflowed the railroad cars, but most dropped off the route along the way.  By the time he arrived in Washington, Lincoln had shed his small-town entourage—and small-town image—retaining only his two young private secretaries.  His campaign manager David Davis later bitterly complained that Lincoln “never asked my advice on any question.” Only later did Davis become one of the very few Illinois friends Lincoln ever rewarded with a political appointment: he named him to the U. S. Supreme Court.  But not for another year.
  • Treat your predecessor with respect, however painful.  Privately, Lincoln confided that if lame duck President James Buchanan abandoned federal forts in the South, he should be “hanged.”  After imprudently criticizing Buchanan’s last state of the union message before he saw a final or accurate transcript, Lincoln held his tongue.  Once in Washington, he visited Buchanan (albeit without an invitation) at the White House, and in turn Buchanan paid an equally flattering courtesy call on Lincoln at his hotel, implicitly blessing the succession.  Partisanship has no place in the transition process.  Besides, sitting presidents can do no good during the interregnum—only harm.
  • Travel to the capital conspicuously—and courageously.  Security worries are nothing new.  After months in isolation (he had done no campaigning and made only two post-election trips, one to meet the vice president-elect in Chicago, and the other to bid farewell to his stepmother), President-Elect Lincoln wanted, and needed, to see and be seen by the people.  Despite frightening threats to his safety, he undertook perhaps the most public inaugural journey in history.  More Americans saw him in person than had ever laid eyes on a leader, and though the jocular tone of many of his 100 speeches en route aroused some criticism, he was generally received warmly.  His one miscue was agreeing to cancel his scheduled daytime visit to Baltimore—the one Southern city on his route—and instead to steal through the city on a night train, wearing a new slouch hat to disguise his appearance.  The evasion was justifiable (a murder plot there was credible), but his stealth made people forget that after learning of the danger, he had bravely stood in the open air to raise a flag at Independence Hall, or that he remained virtually unguarded during the late-hour final leg of his long journey.  Lincoln later called the dodge a mistake—reminding modern presidents-elect that admitting errors is not a bad idea either.
  • Don’t be afraid to modify your image and show off the result.  Clean-shaven his entire adult life, Lincoln began growing whiskers a few weeks after his election—puttin’ on [h]airs,” a newspaperman joked.  He charmingly credited an 11-year-old girl for the idea (Grace Bedell of Westfield, New York, thought his face looked “too thin”).  Famously modest about his homely appearance, Lincoln then proceeded to sit for a painter, a sculptor, and several photographers to make sure his evolving look was properly recorded and widely disseminated to the public.  Such activities usefully diverted the public from more serious challenges, over which a president-elect has no real power, anyway.  As a bonus, this “new” Lincoln—who suddenly looked the part of a wise statesman—seemed better suited to the crises awaiting him than the lantern-jawed, beardless railsplitter of the campaign.
  • Make extra copies of everything you write and keep the secret stuff close at hand.  Of course, word processors and Xeroxes make this task far simpler today—but it remains crucial.  Lincoln entrusted his inaugural address to his son while dining in Indianapolis.  When he discovered it was missing, he was observed leaping over his hotel’s front desk and tearing open a dozen similar-looking gripsacks until he found his precious manuscript—which he had taken pains to keep secret.  It was a moment of panic and a close call.  Keep your crucial talking points by your side.
  • Feign disgust at the bureaucracy but make sure you practice the policy of “out with the old, in with the new.”  While nurturing a reputation as a beleaguered change agent beset by avaricious place-seekers, Lincoln eagerly ousted Democratic office holders, appointed hundreds of Republicans to take their place, and all but remade the government.  Fear of losing their longtime hold on local federal outposts like post offices and ports may have nourished Southern disloyalty, but giving up patronage to keep peace would have kept the slave interest in power perpetually. 
  • Meet your foes without preconditions.  As soon as Lincoln arrived in Washington, he called on Buchanan and his Cabinet and visited both Houses of Congress while in session (with startled secessionist Southerners in attendance).  He even went to the Supreme Court to shake hands with the jurist whose infamous pro-slavery Dred Scott decision had aroused Lincoln’s furious—and sometimes personal—attacks (and perhaps even helped make him president): Chief Justice Roger B. Taney.  A few days later, though quivering noticeably, the disappointed old jurist dutifully administered the presidential oath of office to a man he undoubtedly feared and despised.
  • Make yourself visible and accessible when you reach the capital—even before your swearing-in.  To counter the bad press that greeted his nocturnal flight through Baltimore (cartoonists gleefully showed him fleeing in disguise, wearing a scotch cap and military cloak), Lincoln took public walks, went to church on Thanksgiving and arm-in-arm with his more experienced visitor, Cabinet aspirant Salmon P. Chase, held public hours, hosted glittering parties, and sat for a series of flattering new photos—the 19th-century equivalent of going on Meet the Press and Face the Nation on the same Sunday morning.
  • Oh, yes: leave your pets home.  Someone will inevitably object to the way you transport them to Washington anyway, and besides, someone will invariably give your children a more photogenic animal once you move into the White House.  His sons no doubt protested tearfully, but Lincoln insisted that their mangy dog Fido remain behind in Springfield, asking only that his new owner let him sleep on the sofa.  In Washington, his children got to keep horses, a turkey, even goats (in an 1864 telegram to his traveling family, he instructed his wife: “Tell Tad the goats and father are very well—especially the goats”).  This made grand newspaper copy and helped to soften the image of a president often portrayed as a heartless dictator.

In sum, a successful president-elect requires exquisite training, rigorous discipline, strong character, high principles, public relations acumen, personal courage, and good luck.  In short, presidential transitions require a Lincoln.  We need one now, perhaps more than ever.

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Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 11/18/2008

On the one hand you say he should put his political enemies in the Cabinet, e.g., Hillary Rodham Clinton, while on the other you suggest he "take control of his party." It seems to me those two moves are mutually exclusive.

Strange you feel that Lincoln's first inaugural did him any good. He was desperately trying to avoid war, but the war came with bells on anyway, and it would have come whether his first inaugural was Shakespearian or not. I don't think he was looking for "rave reviews," or compliments from Stephen Douglas, but instead was trying to stave off war.

What "political advantage" did Lincoln get from appointing Simon Cameron, apart from winning the nomination itself? The man was a terrible disgrace to Lincoln, using the War Department as his private honeypot while sending rotten beef and shoes to the soldiers.

Somewhere in the files of Frank Leslie's Illustrated magazine there is an editorial which says that Lincoln "appointed every male of puberty from Illinois" to public office. That doesn't gibe with your notes above. I know only of Dr. William Jayne of Springfield being appointed the first governor of Dakota Territory, and Mary Lincon's cousin J. B. S. Todd becoming the first Delegate to Congress from Dakota, but suspect there were dozens more of such appointments, as followed all presidents in that era--and later.

The happy appointments of Salmon P. Chase, William H. Seward, Edwin M. Stanton and Montgomery Blair are remarkable because Lincoln probably had never met any of them before arriving in Washington in 1961. Nor could he pick up the phone and talk to cabinet prospects like Obama can... Stanton had been in Buchanan's cabinet.