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Lincoln's Heir

January 28, 2013

One sure sign of the success of Barack Obama's second inaugural address on Monday is that right and left shared a common assessment of its impact. Conservatives decried the "amazing" speech (Charles Krauthammer) as "among the best of the past half-century" (David Brooks) precisely because liberals found Obama's "expansive case for progressive governance, grounded in the language of the Founding Fathers" (Greg Sargent) to be "startling" and "the most sustainedly 'progressive' statement Barack Obama has made in his decade on the national stage" (James Fallows). Right-wing protests that the 44th President marked "the end of Reaganism" (Krauthammer) and instead augured that "the era of liberalism is back" (Mitch McConnell) testify to the magnitude of Obama's triumph on Inauguration Day.
But for the Party of Lincoln, the most appalling development at the Capitol Monday was the realization that Barack Obama may have established himself as the heir to its namesake. That is, one hundred fifty years after the Gettysburg Address, President Obama followed Abraham Lincoln in elevating the Declaration of Independence as both the promise and the measure of the American project. (For more background, see Garry Wills' classic, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America.) And by committing the United States to the proposition that women, African-Americans, immigrants, gay Americans--that all Americans--are all equally members of our nation's expanding circle of liberty, Obama like Lincoln resolved that America "shall have a new birth of freedom."
Dedicating the new national cemetery at Gettysburg on November 19, 1863, President Lincoln quickly redefined the meanings of both the Civil War and the American creed itself:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and dedicated, can long endure.

In his second inaugural address this week, President Obama, too, from the very outset enshrined the Declaration as the ideal towards which America must always strive:

What makes us exceptional -- what makes us American -- is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

With the very survival of the nation in jeopardy, Lincoln pleaded for Americans honoring the Union fallen "to be to be dedicated here to the unfinished work" and "take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion." But in this much less dangerous moment, President Obama similarly explained:

Today we continue a never-ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they've never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth.

To emphasize what the price of that freedom for all Americans has often entailed, Obama drew from Lincoln's 1858 "House Divided" speech ("'A house divided against itself cannot stand.' I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved; I do not expect the house to fall; but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.) and the second inaugural of March 4, 1865 ("Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'"):

Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free.

But if Barack Obama is a living embodiment of the progress made 150 years after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation declared the slaves "shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free," America's "never-ending journey" must still at arrive freedom, justice and equality for all. Despite the caution and compromises that sometimes characterized much of his first term, by its end President Obama left no doubt that all must be equal members of the American community:

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths -- that all of us are created equal -- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.

That powerful alliteration ("Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall") cementing the rightful place of women, African-Americans and gay Americans in a nation of equals may have surprised Obama's audience, but it wasn't new. As his speechwriter Jon Favreau explained, that line first introduced during the President's May 2012 commencement address at Barnard College seemed altogether fitting on Martin Luther King Day:

"We knew we wanted to pay tribute to King in some way. So it kind of fit right there. Before he gave the speech, I'm like, I actually think this is going make some news because it's probably the first time a president has mentioned the word "gay" or "Stonewall" in an inaugural speech."

And the remedy for American failures to live up to its founding creed, Obama repeatedly insisted Monday, is "We, the people." As the Constitution announces it in the preamble, "We the people" are both the instruments and the beneficiaries of that "more perfect Union." And as President Obama emphasized in staccato fashion, "our journey is not complete" until "our mothers and daughters" and "our gay brothers and sisters" are treated as equals under the law, and until "we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity."
In his second inaugural address, President Obama didn't just expand Lincoln's umbrella of freedom and equality to all Americans. In the keeping with the finest progressive tradition, Obama insisted that the Declaration's promise of the "unalienable rights" of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" is neither guaranteed nor automatic. To "give real meaning to our creed" for each American, the President declared, often requires the "collective action" of every American through their elected government:

We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity. We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit. But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future. For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn.
We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.

To be sure, Obama's revision of the 16th President's formula did not please today's Party of Lincoln. Then again, Lincoln's elevation of the Declaration had critics in his day, too. As the Chicago Times sneered in response to the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln's call for a "new birth of freedom":

"It was to uphold this constitution, and the Union created by it, that our officers and soldiers gave their lives at Gettysburg. How dare he, then, standing on their graves, misstate the cause for which they died, and libel the statesmen who founded the government? They were men possessing too much self-respect to declare that Negroes were their equals, or were entitled to equal privileges."

That the Constitution as originally drafted and conceived was defective seems self-evident, even if today's Republicans refuse to admit it. But then again, for many of those Republicans honoring the birthday of Stonewall Jackson or issuing Confederate Heritage proclamations without mentioning the word "slavery" (an omission former RNC chairman and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour called "a nit"), President Obama's policies are akin to what Georgia Rep. Paul Broun called the "Great War of Yankee Aggression." Nevertheless, the same Republicans whose unprecedented obstruction designed to make Barack Obama a one-term president accused him this week for failing to "reach out."
Of course, Obama has reached out to Republicans, beginning his victory speech on Election Day 2008. Again, he turned to the words of the Great Emancipator, this time from Lincoln's first inaugural:

Let's remember that it was a man from this state who first carried the banner of the Republican Party to the White House -- a party founded on the values of self-reliance and individual liberty and national unity. Those are values we all share...
As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours, 'We are not enemies, but friends -- though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.' And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn, I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your president too.

Republicans, the same ones who insisted George W. Bush and not Barack Obama was Lincoln's heir, were having none of it. By August 2011, President Obama could only joke:

"Lincoln -- they used to talk about him almost as bad as they talk about me."

Some of them still do. But after his second inaugural speech, President Barack Obama may yet share some of history's praise for Abraham Lincoln. As Frederick Douglass explained during the 1876 dedication of the Freedmen's Monument in Washington, D.C.:

"Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined."

(This piece originally appeared at Dailykos.)


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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