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The Stimulus Plan: Obama's Reaction

Invoking the Lincoln mystique

President Obama celebrates his predecessor's 200th birthday with a

February 13, 2009|Peter Nicholas

WASHINGTON — One freed the slaves and preserved the Union; the other is three weeks into a presidency and struggling to pass a stimulus package.

At this early point in his term, Barack Obama has barely compiled a record, much less achieved anything on the scale of Abraham Lincoln.

But the president is invoking Lincoln at every turn, using imagery that aims to link the two men in the public's mind. The practice began with his presidential announcement speech at the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., where Lincoln delivered his "house divided" speech. It continued through the long campaign season, past election day and into the 77-day transition.

As president, Obama has plunged into the ceremonies marking the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth. He took part in three separate events over the last two days, culminating with a banquet Thursday night in Springfield, where Lincoln once lived and worked.

Speaking at a celebration in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda earlier Thursday, Obama said: "He recognized that while each of us must do our part, work as hard as we can and be as responsible as we can, in the end there are certain things we cannot do on our own. There are certain things we can only do together. There are certain things only a union can do."

Obama has shown a fascination with the mythology surrounding the 16th president.

The weekend before he was sworn in, he took a train from Philadelphia to Washington, tracing part of the train route taken by Lincoln before his first inaugural.

Obama took the oath of office on the Bible that Lincoln used. After the ceremony, he presided over the traditional post-inaugural luncheon, where the menu showcased some of Lincoln's favorite foods: duck, pheasant and seafood.

Obama studied Lincoln's inaugural addresses for inspiration as he crafted his own. Days before the swearing-in, he visited the Lincoln Memorial and was spotted walking around with a book about Lincoln under his arm.

For Lincoln's bicentennial, Obama was a kind of honorary master of ceremonies. He spoke at a reopening ceremony Wednesday at Ford's Theater, the scene of Lincoln's assassination in 1865.

"For despite all that divided us -- North and South, black and white -- he had an unyielding belief that we were, at heart, one nation and one people," Obama said. "And because of Abraham Lincoln, and all who've carried on his work in the generations since, that is what we remain today."

There are several similarities between the two presidents. Both served in the Illinois Legislature. Both made an improbable ascent to the White House. Both took office at a time of national crisis: for Lincoln, secession; for Obama, a stunning economic downturn.

Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One on Thursday, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said, "This president isn't seeking to compare himself" to Lincoln.

"I mean, there are parallels I think that make it hard for some to ignore: the Illinois factor, spending roughly the same amount of time in Springfield and the same amount of time in Congress," Gibbs said. "But I don't -- I think the parallels don't go a whole lot beyond that."

All the Lincoln symbolism has drawn complaints that the 44th president is overdoing it. And scholars cautioned that comparisons between the two may be facile.

Yes, both Obama and Lincoln were writers. But Lincoln penned the Gettysburg address, considered a lyrical masterwork. Obama's speeches and books -- at this stage, at least -- are not of the same caliber, Lincoln experts say.

Fred Kaplan is the author of "Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer" -- the book Obama was seen carrying before the inauguration.

"Lincoln is a genius of language and a brilliant writer who deserves to be seen as part of the canon of great writers in American literature," Kaplan said in an interview. "Obama is a very fine writer with an excellent command of language. His memoir 'Dreams From My Father' is a fine book, but it will not rank as one of the great autobiographies."

The Obama White House may be setting an impossible standard by mentioning Lincoln so much, Kaplan added.

"It may be all too easy for people to say, 'Obama has additionally disappointed us because he has conditioned us to think in Lincolnian terms -- and we have something considerably less than that, in actuality,' " he said.

Michael Burlingame, author of a new two-volume biography, "Abraham Lincoln: A Life," agreed that "it's a pretty high standard to hold yourself up to."

"It takes a certain amount of nerve," Burlingame said.

But Luke Zentner -- a recent transplant to the Washington area from Eugene, Ore., who was at the Lincoln Memorial on Thursday -- said he saw nothing wrong with the comparison.

"I think that anybody Obama can gain inspiration from will help," Zentner said. "If he's going to aim high, that can't hurt."

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peter.nicholas@latimes.com

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Christi Parsons and Ben Meyerson in our Washington bureau and Tribune staff writers Ray Long and Ashley Rueff in Springfield contributed to this report.

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