An interesting debate has broken out over Steven Spielberg’s film “Lincoln.” The debate revolves around whether the film adequately credits the role of the abolitionists and of the rebelling slaves in bringing about the end of slavery. A second question is the relevance of the film to the Obama presidency, and the possibility of comparing Lincoln and Obama.
I liked the film. It’s not a film about the Civil War or emancipation, but only about one moment in the incredible Lincoln Presidency: his role in orchestrating the passage of the 13th amendment, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. Lincoln was of course an incredibly complex figure, one of our two truly great Presidents, the other being Franklin Roosevelt. The subject of the film is clear. The South has been defeated and is suing for peace. All those who saw the war as being about restoring the union, and not about slavery, want Lincoln to settle. Lincoln keeps the Southern delegates away from Washington so he can push through the anti-Slavery amendment. What is clear is that Lincoln has come to understand that the meaning of the war is the end of slavery, not merely the restoration of the union. In no sense is Lincoln seeking a practical, moderate, compromised solution to the war. All descriptions of Lincoln as a politician and not an “idealist” are irrelevant compared to this one simple fact.
Obama is exactly the opposite. He thinks that those who insist on the meaning of reforms are impractical. He is willing to get a bill for “affordable health care” through on the basis of cutting costs, not social justice. He thinks the basic problems are technical, not ideological (like whether slavery was right or wrong, something Lincoln insisted on). He thinks there are no red states, no blue states, only the United States, whereas Lincoln insisted that the nation had to decide between two sets of values, slave and free.
The most important difference is this, however. Lincoln sought reconciliation with the South– perhaps to a fault, but nobly– only after he had beaten them to a pulp. Obama seeks reconciliation with Republicans while refusing to acknowledge that he has now beaten them twice. Lincoln never sought a compromise between slavery and freedom: he knew there was no compromise. Obama is seeking a compromise between those who want to tax the rich, and those who want to cut entitlements. Had Lincoln followed Obama’s path of “shared sacrifice,” we might still be living with slavery, albeit limited to the Deep South.
I understand that many people believe that my characterization of Obama applies only to the first term, and that now we are dealing with a different person. I hope these people are right, but this I do know: it is only if a principled Left holds fast that Obama can even begin to follow the path of principle that Lincoln so magnificently laid down.