Obama is re-tracing the final stages of the train trip Lincoln made to assume the presidency, beginning the fanfare for an inaugural celebration in which the Great Emancipator will be an unmistakable presence. With an official theme for the festivities taken from the Gettysburg Address, Obama will appear at the martyred president's memorial for a televised concert and take the oath of office on a Bible used by Lincoln -- and even attend an official inaugural luncheon that will feature favorite Lincoln foods.
Lincoln is in some ways a natural fit for a tall, skinny politician from Illinois who, like the 16th president, shows a gift for oratory. And it is all the more so for a president whose barrier-breaking election can be viewed as the fulfillment of the long struggle for racial equality begun by Lincoln's emancipation of the slaves. Invoking greats.
Now, a political team that has been unusually adept at associating Obama with historic figures -- his campaign also invoked John F. and Robert Kennedy and, more discreetly, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. -- is again turning to Lincoln as it sets the stage for the Obama presidency. The pomp of an inauguration presents a moment when the public is unusually open to placing an incoming president in the broad context of American history, and the Lincoln presidency offers an example of a strong leader seeing the nation through grave challenges.
The parallel has limits as a political tool but can still help prepare the public for sacrifices and patience through difficult moments ahead as Obama confronts dire economic circumstances, two wars and the threat of terrorism, said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist." They're trying to get people to focus on the history of the presidency in times of crisis," Devine said. "If they can make that comparison valid, that will give him the leeway to do the things he needs to do. He's going to have to do things that are unpopular."
The coming bicentennial of Lincoln's birth next month adds resonance to the parallel, with a slew of books on Lincoln pouring out, several television documentaries scheduled and celebrations planned around the country. Obama and FDR.
Obama has also encouraged analogies to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who led the nation through the Great Depression and World War II. Obama told reporters he was reading a biography of Roosevelt, and aides leaked that Obama is studying Roosevelt's "Hundred Days" at the beginning of his administration. But Lincoln is the predecessor whom Obama has most consistently and most directly invoked since he began his campaign for the White House.
He closed his campaign announcement speech with words from Gettysburg, calling for "A New Birth of Freedom," a phrase that has now become the official inaugural theme, and made no fewer than three references to Lincoln in his victory speech.