Finding the Lincoln in Obama

Why the quiet confidence of Obama is a reminder of the intelligent greatness of Lincoln.

It is superficial to think that Barack Obama must be like Abraham Lincoln just because they are both from Illinois. We did not say that Everett Dirksen, a Republican, was some new Lincoln. Or that Paul Douglas, a more likely candidate though a Democrat, should be seen through a Lincoln lens.

In fact, neither Lincoln nor Obama entered the world in Illinois. They should be seen as outsiders in many ways. Lincoln was born in Kentucky, just seventeen years after it was admitted into the Union. Obama was born at a frontier more recent but more distant, in Hawaii two years after it became a state. Lincoln came to Illinois when he was twenty-one, Obama when he was twenty-four. Both were lawyers who made their way from the bottom up. Both came onto the national stage as an outsider, without the customary credentials and connections of national politics.

In most gatherings, Lincoln was the smartest man in the room. So is Obama. But both men proved too smart to show that.

Lincoln, unlike Obama, had little-to-no formal education. He was in some ways more easily dismissed than Obama. He had only two years in national office, in the lower House of Representatives, to four for Obama in the upper house, the Senate. Both were excoriated for lack of experience, but Lincoln more scathingly. In the eyes of his 1860 rivals, he was a hick, a bumpkin -- for some he was a baboon. Charles Francis Adams and his sons, Henry and Brooks, thought him unqualified for the presidency, as did many of their Eastern peers.

Each ratcheted up his presidential prospects with a significant speech—Lincoln at Cooper Union in New York, Obama at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia. Each took a challenge presented by a scandalous person – John Brown in Lincoln’s case, Jeremiah Wright in Obama’s – and refused to engage in tit-for-tat exchanges. Instead, they used the occasion to rise to a higher level of analysis, Lincoln engaging the problem of slavery, Obama discussing America’s perennial troubles over race.It was the quality of mind each showed that was important. And this brings us to the deepest resemblance between the two men.

In most gatherings, Lincoln was the smartest man in the room. So is Obama. But both men proved too smart to show that. This is not so much a matter of humility as the recognition that displaying superior intellect is foolish. Brains can be a disability, not only because they provoke envy and resentment, but because they can cut off needed help, correction, and the interaction of people that leads to success in politics.

During the primary season, when Obama was on a run of successes, he went into his Chicago headquarters to congratulate his young team of workers and urge them to even greater efforts. He told them that he recognized he was not a perfect candidate, though he would try to get better, but he needed them to carry him to success despite his imperfections. That was a very Lincolnian moment.

One apparent difference between the two is that Obama lacks the uses of humor that let Lincoln defuse tense situations with a funny story. Obama has a wry sense of the absurd, but he is not a master of the appropriate anecdote on a level with Lincoln. Nonetheless, he has the empathy that underlay Lincoln’s knowledge of what tale would fit the situation and the personality of the person he was dealing with.

Obama’s empathy comes out in a striking way in the audio recording he did of his own book, Dreams From My Father. I had read the book, but a friend told me that hearing him read it is a totally different experience. He was right. Obama has an extraordinary ear, and the sympathy he expresses for all the characters he describes in the book is conveyed in his adjustments of tone and timing.

He even takes on the accent of the people whose conversation he reports – the street talk of black gang members, the African accent of his father, the quite different African accent of his Kenyan sister. This is not parody, and he is not doing “impressions.” One feels he has truly got inside another person. Like Lincoln, he has not enclosed himself within himself.He is confident without arrogance.

Of course, I am not saying that he is as great as Lincoln was. No one is that.

Garry Wills is Professor of History Emeritus, Northwestern University. His books include Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, which won him a National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction, and Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, which won him a Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. His book Nixon Agonistes earned him a coveted place on Nixon’s list of political opponents.