Obama’s Lincoln Legacy

The predecessor that President Barack Obama most often channels is Abraham Lincoln.

Despite obvious differences -- Lincoln was a Republican and was born more than 150 years before Obama -- there are striking similarities. They are the only two presidents from Illinois, though neither was born there.

As the historian Garry Wills said when Obama was first elected president: "Both came onto the national stage as an outsider, without the customary credentials and connections of national politics."

Most poignant, one is the first black president; the other made that achievement possible by preserving the union and ending the evil of slavery. Obama keeps a copy of Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation in the Oval Office that was loaned by David Rubenstein, the founder of the private-equity company Carlyle Group LP.

Obama began his first presidential campaign five years ago in Springfield, Illinois, where Lincoln gave his famous "House Divided" speech in 1858. A year later, arriving for his historic inaugural, Obama retraced the final phases of the train trip Lincoln made 148 years earlier. He took the oath of office on the Bible used by the 16th president.

There are major differences to be sure. Obama, Wills noted, "lacks the uses of humor that let Lincoln defuse tense situations with a funny story." 

Obama decided four years ago to select his former rival Hillary Clinton as his secretary of state and to retain Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a Republican. He was seen to be taking a page from Lincoln, who surrounded himself with former adversaries, as captured in Doris Kearns Goodwin's book "Team of Rivals." This has proven more show than reality; few of his top second-term appointments are expected to be former rivals.

(Albert R. Hunt is Washington editor at Bloomberg News and a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)

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