Sean Wilentz’s cover story in the New Republic reviews seven recent books on Abraham Lincoln and reflects on the “almost cultish enthusiasm” for comparing Barack Obama (who has been president for little more than five months) to the greatest president in American history.
The intellectuals’ rapture over Obama, their eagerness to align him with their beatified Lincoln, has grown out of a deep hunger for a liberal savior . . . . Although Obama’s supporters at times likened him to the two Kennedys, and at times to FDR, the comparisons always came back to Lincoln — with the tall, skinny, well-spoken Great Emancipator from Illinois serving as the spiritual forebear of the tall, skinny, well-spoken great liberal hope from Illinois.
Wilentz writes it is natural that electing an African-American president brings Lincoln to mind, but that “the hunger pangs of some liberals have caused them to hallucinate.”
Obama’s legendary announcement in Springfield was the purest political stagecraft, but it was happily regarded as a kind of message from history. . . . One hears that the rhetoric that carried Obama to the White House is Lincolnesque, which it most certainly is not, either in its imagery or its prosody. One hears even that Obama is not just an extremely talented and promising new president but, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. writes, that he is “destined” — destined! — “to be thought of as Lincoln’s direct heir.”
Wilentz further notes the irony of Obama obtaining the Democratic nomination by manipulation of caucus rules in early states and later obtaining the backing of the “super delegates,” and then winning the presidency in part through a massive funding advantage over the Republican candidate. There is “something, well, rich about the candidate beloved by the good-government reformers relying on the party insiders to get nominated and rejecting public financing in order to get elected.”
Five months into his presidency, it is increasingly apparent that Obama is the heir not of Lincoln, but of another president who initially inspired high hopes with his intelligence (he graduated from Annapolis and worked on nuclear physics with Admiral Rickover) and literary skills (he was the author of a well-received autobiography with the audacious title “Why Not the Best?”), but who lacked experience (serving only one term as a governor before becoming president), and who fundamentally misread the country’s Communist and Islamic adversaries.
As Obama heads off to Russia without his secretary of state, and Iran’s fists remain clenched despite videos and speeches, even liberal historians are starting to hedge their bets.