Magnanimous in victory, Barack Obama invoked the words of our greatest healing president. Under a clear night sky in Chicago's Grant Park on Nov. 4, Obama quoted Abraham Lincoln's first Inaugural Address: "We are not enemies, but friends … Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection." Then, in a vernacular perhaps more fitting to our times, he echoed the sentiment. "And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn—I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your president too." It is a fairly safe bet that "44," who has been reading Lincoln's writings in recent weeks, will pay tribute to "16" at his next significant speaking engagement. On Jan. 20, from the steps of the U.S. Capitol, Obama will be able to peer west, across the Mall to the Lincoln Memorial. And with the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth drawing near (the theme of the Inaugural is Lincoln's "New Birth of Freedom"), many will see parallels between the Great Emancipator and the first African-American to gain the presidency.
We have always reached back to our finest presidents as a way of measuring our current leaders. But it is during moments of national crisis when that reflex is especially acute. Obama has been compared to John F. Kennedy for his youth and ineffable grace, and more recently to FDR for the epic challenges he will inherit. In perilous times it is easy to slip into mythologizing, the mingling of objective fact with subjective need. So biography by analogy has its limitations. But understanding why politicians are drawn to certain presidents can also be illuminating. Some of the Lincoln/Obama analogies are more coincidental than consequential. Both men were lean-framed politicians from Illinois who came from humble beginnings; both were relatively inexperienced but knew how to give a good speech; both opposed popular wars at some political risk (as a freshman in Congress, Lincoln railed against the Mexican War as a "lust of dominion"; as a state senator, Obama called the Iraq War "dumb"). But there are also hints that the president-elect may have absorbed the deeper meaning of Lincoln's leadership style.
Obama premised his candidacy on his ability to rise above petty and divisive politics. In our cover story this week, Evan Thomas and Richard Wolffe—aided by reporting from Holly Bailey, Sarah Kliff and Katie Connolly—identify the most important quality as humility. Lincoln, they write, had the confidence to be humble. He could assemble his "team of rivals" cabinet because he had a unique ability to withstand personal slights, to actually listen and not be threatened by contrary advice. Now, as Obama puts together his own governing team, some see signs of a similar capacity. The news late last week that he was considering Hillary Clinton to be his secretary of state invites an intriguing historical parallel. In 1860 Lincoln's competitor for the Republican nomination, William Seward, just happened to be a ferociously ambitious senator from New York. After a hard-fought political battle, Lincoln tapped him to be secretary of state.
Barack Obama has much to prove before "Lincolnesque" will ever be attached to his name. Nevertheless, as we prepare for a transition of power during these uncertain times, it is tempting to search for such qualities in our new chief executive. After all, as historian MichaelBeschloss points out in an accompanying essay, just about every American president over the past century has sought solace and guidance from the 16th.