The ole Republican party “ain't’ what it use to be, ain't’ what it use to be, ain’t what it used to be”! This is one of the greatest moments in American history—the election of 2008 marks the first time that an African American* is elected President. Barack Hussein Obama is this African American. Born August 4, 1961, in Hawaii to a White mother and an African father (Kenyan). Having lived in Indonesia with his stepfather, Obama represents all that is America—a melting pot of race and culture. Is this what American voters saw in him? We have seen African Americans running for president before, (i.e. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson), but they did not have the popularity and momentum like Obama had. What is it that makes Obama different?
African Americans were not the only people to vote for Obama, he also had a following of middle to upper class white men voting for him as well. Could it be that at a time when our Nation is at war, a war that really boils down to cultural intolerance as much as it does economics, we are looking for someone with a unique cultural perspective and outlook? Could it be that Obama reminds Americans of another great presidential candidate that ran amidst a war a long ago?
Abraham Lincoln was also a presidential candidate at a critical and historical time in our Nation’s history. Both were lawyers and both were residents of Illinois. Lincoln was running for office at a time when America felt they needed him. Is this what was meant by the saying “our country gets the president it deserves”?
“They got what they deserved” is usually not seen as a positive statement and often reflects that a person (or country) did some sort of wrong or ill and that some sort of revenge, karma, or justice will be handed down upon them. Dare we think back on Reverend Wright’s, Obama’s controversial pastor, comments on how we (America) had September 11th (911) coming to us because of all the wrongs we did to other countries; A statement that sent ripples through the Obama campaign, and through the country. Lincoln said: “If you once forfeit the confidence of your fellow citizens, you can never regain their respect and esteem”. Obviously Obama never lost our respect.
Lincoln’s personal Secretary, John Hay, wrote: “ I believe the hand of God placed him where he is….I believe the people know what they want, and unless politics have gained in power and lost in principle they will have it.” This could be part of the answer to the “deserve” question.
Many of Obama’s constituents felt that Obama’s lack of years in the senate and his lack of foreign policy skills is a hindrance to his ability to effectively carry out the role as Commander in Chief. But, Lincoln did not have the resume or the “breeding” like the other presidents. Hay also said: “I know the people want him, there’s no mistaking that fact. But politicians are strong yet and he is not their kind”.
Lincoln came to the presidency with no military experience, yet sat down with Generals, read a load of books on military tactics, and did an excellent job as Commander in Chief. President John F. Kennedy once asked David Herbert Donald, a Harvard historian and writer of Lincoln, whether it was necessary for a president to fight a war in order to be great, Donald referred to Roosevelt, who was known for his achievements during peace-time (shepherding America through the Depression), but had no war experience.
When Obama came on the scene all the buzz was—who is this man that no one knows running for our nation’s highest post? Much of Lincoln’s time was exhausted attempting to satisfy the public’s curiosity about, “a candidate whose career was not widely known outside of his own state”. The same holds true about Obama. His running mates—Hillary Clinton and John McCain were well known for their years of experience, Obama’s popularity began and remained steady on the southside of Chicago and not much elsewhere.
Until the presidential race, many people had not even heard of Obama. Much of the media speculated that the reason Obama’s numbers weren’t as high as they could have been was because there is a certain uncertainty about who Obama really is. With both, Obama and Lincoln, the public had questions and uncertainties for example, about their names. Because part of Obama’s name is Arabic it has even been likened to that of the world’s leading terrorists, Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden. Many Americans fear that they will be electing a Muslim into the white house. Lincoln had to assure everyone that his name was Abraham and not the Hebrew name Abram. Because of all the uncertainties that surrounded both candidates as to who they really were, both decided to publish an autobiography for campaign purposes.
Lincoln was known for his great speeches, as a matter of fact, there are several books available on his speeches alone, Divided House being probably one of his most famous. Obama is also known for his eloquent and inspiring speeches. His introduction to many Americans came one summer when he was invited to deliver the keynote speech in support of John Kerry at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. Many critics worry that giving great speeches are about all Obama is capable of doing, and that outside of being eloquent and poised, there may not be much more to him and his ability to lead a country. Lincoln and Obama had similar speech styles as well, Lincoln speeches though varied, often included long quoted passages from his previous speeches, and there were times where he gave almost identical speeches. This is also something that Obama does as well. While on the campaign trail Obama repeatedly gave the same speech. Obama’s most popular speech to date was on racial equality, like Lincoln—wrote his address himself, completing the final draft Monday night.
Both Lincoln and Obama remained resolute and confident that they were heading in the right direction and refused to betray the population. There’s a story that during the Civil War when the Lincoln and Secretary of the State—Seward, went to the home of General McClellan to discuss the war, McClellan was not home when they arrived and so Lincoln and Seward waited around for his return. When McClellan came home he was very rude to them by walking straight in and going to bed; Lincoln and Seward left quietly. Lincoln was known as the type that would put necessity over personal feelings, “Lincoln reasoned that the war effort was more important than a slight to his dignity.” Many have tried to slight Obama by associating his name with Islam, by drudging up Reverend Wright, by questioning his “Americaness”, and by even bringing attention to his wife Michelle, about a comment she made about “being proud of America for the first time”, yet like Lincoln, Obama remained steadfast and realized the necessity, (the “urgency of now”).
Obama is not always the brow-frowning, contemplative speaker—he has a wonderful sense of humor. Often joking on the campaign trail, Obama’s humor no doubt also appeals to lot of people. Lincoln also had a great sense of humor. Donald said, “Lincoln used humor masterfully to disarm opponents and win supporters.” If you saw Obama at the Al Smith Charity Dinner you probably would agree and seen just what a great sense of humor Obama has.
A measure of Lincoln’s popularity was the willingness of the people that disagreed with his politics and religious view, to vote for him. Obama’s popularity, humor, and convictions are only a part of what made him the most popular candidate, and now President-Elect; Americans seem to be ready for change. Although there may be some who disagree with Obama’s experience, questionable name, religious affiliations, or race, there were more who voted for him because Americans believe it’s time we made a change to how we practice politics.
91-year-old Grace Lee Boggs, activist, writer, and speaker, said in a 2007 interview with Bill Moyers: “a movement is beginning to emerge. I think that the calamity, the quagmire of the Iraq war, the outsourcing of jobs, the drop-out of young people from the education system, the monstrous growth of the prison-industrial complex, the planetary emergency, which we are engulfed at the present moment, is demanding that instead of just complaining about these things, instead of just protesting about these things, we begin to look for, and hope for, another way of living. I see a movement beginning to emerge, I see hope beginning to trump despair.”
In his speech on race, which could possibly be considered as one of the best speeches ever given by a president, Obama made several references to hope by saying:
“I chose to run for the presidency at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together—unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes”.
“I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion's den, Ezekiel's field of dry bones. Those stories—of survival, and freedom, and hope— became our story”.
“But what we know—what we have seen—is that America can change. That is true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope—the audacity to hope—for what we can and must achieve tomorrow”.
Perhaps America is getting not only getting the president it deserves, but also getting a president it hoped for.
* Barack Obama is multiracial but identifies as African American
Waugh, John C., Reelecting Lincoln, the Battle for the 1864 Presidency, pg. 18
Ibid, pg. 19
Korab, Holly, Lessons from Lincoln, What Our Sixteenth President Can Teach Us About Greatness, page. 9
Ibid, pg. 9
Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln, pg. 252
Ibid, Lincoln, pg. 252
Rutten, Tim, Los Angeles Times, Obama’s Lincoln Moment, March 19, 2008
Korab, Holly, Lessons from Lincoln, What Our Sixteenth President Can Teach Us About Greatness, pg. 7
Ibid, pg. 8
Wilson, Douglas, Honor's Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln, pg. 147
Bill Moyers Journal, Grace Lee Boggs http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/06152007/profile2.html, accessed November 7, 2008.
The Huffington Post, Obama Race Speech: Full Text, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/03/18/obama-race-speech-read-t_n_92077.html, accessed November 7, 2008.