Obama, Lincoln, and the making of second-term history

Historical fodder for the festive season
President Barack Obama poses with a freshly unveiled portrait of Abraham Lincoln after delivering remarks at the dedication of Abraham Lincoln Hall at the National Defense University in Washington, Thursday, March 12, 2009. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

With the holiday season upon us, certain presidents and their historical records are capturing audiences. Newsweek’s Jon Meacham on Thomas Jefferson, Evan Thomas on Dwight D. Eisenhower and Chris Matthews on John F. Kennedy, are all the New York Times’ best seller lists—and Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln is major historical fodder for the festive season. And with the recent reelection of Barack Obama, historians like Michael Beschloss, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Bob Woodward are hitting the airwaves to speculate on whether this president is an accident of history, or about to be a significant figure in the progress of his country.

The campaigns are over, and all the spin has been heard ad nauseum. While the Republicans are doing some soul searching in  preparation of the next go-round, the Obama crowd is busy preparing for the inauguration and establishing the new cabinet. It is clear that this second term will not be any easier than the first. The only difference is that Obama seems to be finally relishing the job, and growing into it—especially when faced with adversity.  The recent Israel-Gaza ceasefire deal, brokered through the active role of Hillary Clinton and Egypt’s President Morsi, had Obama’s fingerprints all over it.

Second term presidents since WWII have had somewhat complicated records: Nixon and Watergate, Reagan and Iran-Contra, Clinton and impeachment, George W. Bush and the Great Recession. All proof that second terms do not ensure a stronger place in history. They can afford the consolidation of first-term achievements, and second terms usually begin with optimism—and the confidence that the reelected president will be even more effective. But events can easily overtake the best-intentioned president and the most ambitious agenda.

Obama will face his first test with the fiscal cliff. He needs a bipartisan deal by the end of December. Immigration reform, energy independence, and the ominous threat of a nuclear Iran are on the horizon. It has the makings of great historical advances, but it also carries the risk of a paralyzed presidency that could lead to a premature “lame duck” status. The ineffective management of the fallout of Hurricane Katrina in the summer of 2005 immediately transformed George W. Bush into a lame duck president.  The bad economy that occurred in 2007-2008, and the prolonged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, further sealed his fate in the history books.

If there is ever a moment where core convictions and principle must rule the day, it is during a second term. And Obama, a student of history, is very conscious of the traps and obstacles awaiting him. Historical references abound, including one captured in Spielberg’s Lincoln. In January 1865, a reelected Lincoln was faced with closing a civil war that his Union forces were winning, and pushing for a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery. Ending the war before amending the constitution on slavery made Lincoln worry that passing the amendment would be less urgent and more susceptible to obstructionist politics.  He chose to seek the amendment first and got the needed bipartisan support to do it. The lesson is clear: look beyond the events of the day, act on core convictions, and seize the moment to make a difference for future generations. That’s how Obama will make history and could eventually attain greatness.