Long before occupying the fictional office of “President Elect,” Barack Obama liked to compare himself with Abraham Lincoln. That’s why he announced recently he’s taking a train to his presidential inauguration:He’s just like Abe.
But Mr. Obama isn’t content merely to be another Lincoln. He has suggested, for example, that his own positions on race and politics are morally superior to Lincoln’s “limited views on race.” Mr. Obama is Lincoln, in other words, only better. How’s that for audacity? His swooning fans in the mainstream press aren’t so nuanced. They respect Lincoln, even if they’re not sure why, and they adore Mr. Obama, so they’re delighted to help cultivate a Lincolnesque Obama of almost mythical proportion. It’s become hard to open a magazine or newspaper without seeing images of Mr. Obama juxtaposed with images of the Great Emancipator.
To help celebrate the 2009 Lincoln Bicentennial, the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies selected “A New Birth of Freedom,” taken from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, to be the inaugural theme when the President-elect becomes president in January. Mr. Obama could not have hand-picked a theme more fitting.
When Katie Couric asked candidate Obama what book would best serve him in the White House should he win the presidency, he answered with Doris Kearns Goodwin’s A Team of Rivals. Mrs. Goodwin’s book praises Lincoln for managing his Cabinet “team,” most of whom were formerly his chief rivals for the 1860 Republican nomination. It might be an understatement to say that Goodwin’s thesis is an overstatement – Lincoln’s Cabinet was arguably more of a disaster than a working “team” – but it’s certainly possible for Mr. Obama to study Lincoln’s political acumen and learn from Lincoln’s political maneuvering.
Yet for all the fussing over Obama-as-Lincoln, no one has dared to mention that in terms of what matters most, their moral and political principles, the first black president and the first Republican president who made it possible for a black man to become president, stand diametrically opposed to one another.
Lincoln gave his last full measure of devotion defending the idea that the most important rights are the equal natural rights that belong to each individual human being. This is precisely why Lincoln could condemn slavery as a great evil, regardless of what the laws or public opinion said. For Lincoln, a “new birth of freedom” in America required nothing less than a rejection of group identification, a renewed dedication to the founding principle that “all men are created equal,” and ultimately offering equal protection under the laws to all citizens and fulfilling what the Founders called the “social contract.” Whether one examines his consistent defense of abortion rights, or race-based affirmative action, or progressive tax plans and wealth redistribution, or bureaucratic regulation of select businesses and industries, Mr. Obama stands on the opposite, New Deal principle that group rights eclipse individual rights.
Indeed, Mr. Obama’s principles are much closer to those of FDR. rather than Lincoln. FDR’s campaign for “economic rights” required government distinguishing between haves and have nots, taking from the former to give to the latter. The kind of progressive “social justice” that informed the New Deal as well as Mr. Obama’s “community organizing” authorizes government bureaucrats to determine who gets what kind of rights and how many, dividing Americans into groups based on victimization and needs: the poor, racial minorities, women, homosexuals, farmers, union members, the elderly, the uninsured, and so on.
Government entitlement programs based on group rights have the double corrupting effect of misleading Americans into thinking their rights are gifts from government while justifying massive bureaucracies, most of which run afoul of any fair reading of the Constitution, that dole out money and preferences to some groups at the expense of others. Nothing could be further from Lincoln’s defense of individual natural rights.
Employing a biblical metaphor, Lincoln once described the principle of individual rights, beautifully presented in the Declaration of Independence, as an “apple of gold.” The Founders’ Constitution, he said, is “the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it.” “The picture was made not to conceal or destroy the apple, but to adorn and preserve it.” Nothing better explains Lincoln’s constitutionalism and politics.
But Mr. Obama, following FDR, rejects the Declaration’s principle of equal, individual rights. This explains why in a 2001 radio interview Mr. Obama lamented that the modern Supreme Court had not yet displaced individual rights with a Constitutional defense of group rights and schemes of redistribution of wealth and property. This is exactly how Mr. Obama thinks the Constitution should be understood.
“Stand with a man as long as he stands right,” Lincoln said, advising his political friends not to insist on perfection when forming political alliances. It is sound practical advice Mr. Obama seems to be employing as he assembles his own political team. The difference between Mr. Obama and Lincoln is what they consider to be right.
This article appeared originally as an op-ed in The Washington Times.