Ron English, the self-styled “Robin Hood of Madison Avenue” who specializes in “liberating” commercial billboards and defacing them (albeit artistically) with his anticapitalist messages, has painted a portrait of Obama as Lincoln: The President’s thick lips, crinkled brow, and eyes sparkling with a preternatural intelligence are seamlessly merged with the high forehead, biblical beard, and absurd ears of the Great Emancipator. Obama-Lincoln looks out at us, almost but not quite grinning with the sweetness of his victory and the knowledge that so many, like Mr. English, view his election as their own personal emancipation from eight years of misery. Indeed, the Lincoln meme has gone viral, with references to the comparison ranging from the lowliest pajama-clad blogger to the esteemed editors of Newsweek. The latter declare that “It is the season to compare Barack Obama to Abraham Lincoln,” and house hacks Evan Thomas and Richard Wolffe take it from there to paint a portrait of the multi-culti messiah that has all the earmarks of a North Korean ode to the Dear Leader:
Two thin men from rude beginnings, relatively new to Washington but wise to the world, bring the nation together to face a crisis. Both are superb rhetoricians, both geniuses at stagecraft and timing. Obama, like Lincoln and unlike most modern politicians, even writes his own speeches . . .
Two thin men? What normal person would make such a comparison? To our elites, thinness is a sign of moral virtue. Here is a President who goes to the gym every day and shoots hoops with the best of them: A penumbra of health radiates from his person like the glow of sanctity. Evans and Wolffe don’t just acknowledge the cosmetic superficiality that got Obama elected: They celebrate it. According to Newsweek, Obama is the New Lincoln because both are thin, geniuses at stagecraft, and write a lot of their own material—a rationale that also makes Obama the New Michael Jackson.
The Lincolnian legacy was constantly reiterated by the Obamaites as they readied themselves for Inauguration Day, and “a new birth of freedom” is their theme song. As to what this freedom consists of, it depends on whom you ask. Obama is the perfect demagogue; his followers project their own hopes and desires onto the blankness of his expression.
Since we live in an age from which greatness has been banished, it’s only natural for politicians, ideologues, and common demagogues to reach back into the past for models to serve as masks for their nostrums. Lincoln, the self-educated rail-splitting backwoods boy, born in a lean-to, who rose from nothing to become a larger-than-life figure in our history—Obama sees himself in our 16th president, as he admits in a 2005 essay in Time, and his cultists lap it up. It’s pure Madison Avenue. As Peggy Noonan acerbically remarked,
Barack Obama, the son of two University of Hawaii students, went to Columbia and Harvard Law after attending a private academy that taught the children of the Hawaiian royal family. He made his name in politics as an aggressive Chicago vote hustler in Bill Clinton’s first campaign for the presidency.
You see the similarities.
Beyond the Stalinesque cult of personality promoted by the mainstream media, there is a real sense in which Obama’s kinship with Lincoln, the politician, is all too apparent. The left’s love affair with Obama will continue long after they realize that he’s simply a shill for big business, just like Lincoln. Honest Abe was the perfect embodiment of Whiggish economic principles: subsidies for politically connected industries, starting with the banks but not ending there. With Lincoln, it was the railroads who collected government favors and tax dollars; in Obama’s time, it will be the road builders. In both scenarios, the banks are showered with governmental largesse. Obama has often been likened to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as the shadow of a Second Great Depression looms ever larger, and yet Obama’s New New Deal will no doubt resemble the corporate welfare state championed by Lincoln rather than the WPA-style work brigades romanticized by Obama’s leftist supporters.
Lincoln abolished hard money, introduced the greenback, and laid the foundations of the seminationalized banking system that is presently crumbling all around us. Furthermore, Lincoln set up a tariff wall behind which the “trusts” were sheltered, and these monstrous economic institutions sprouted and flourished like rampant weeds, choking their economic and political competitors and effectively running the country. Think of the Great Emancipator as the host at a gigantic orgy of corporate welfare: Favored businesses were heavily subsidized—not just the banks but the railroads, which were lavished with land grants. The machinery of government loomed larger than ever before in America. At the heart of it beat that great engine of government-created inflation, the regulated central banks, to finance it all. Wherever Lincoln trod, the old free and independent spirit of American enterprise was stamped out: The Post Service was monopolized, the tax burden grew much heavier, and “sin” taxes were slapped on tobacco and whiskey.
Obama set about further centralizing and outright nationalizing the banking system before he even took office: He spoke in favor of the bank bailout and, together with John McCain, issued a statement that, in effect, gave the federal government a blank check to take whatever measures it deemed necessary, by administrative fiat, to shore up the collapsing walls of the Lincolnian central-banking edifice.
Taxation was the Great Emancipator’s tool of choice in his effort to weld together a strong centralized mercantile state, and the tariff was a major aspect of his economic program. His nomination at the Republican National Convention over his better-known and more experienced rivals was made possible, in part, by the support of the key Pennsylvania delegation. As the center of the ailing iron and steel industry, Pennsylvania was angling for higher tariffs, import quotas, and other special privileges. One of Lincoln’s first acts was to erect the highest tariff wall in our history, doubling tariff rates and later imposing import quotas.
Labor, a major Obamaite constituency, is already agitating for a higher tariff wall, and this fits right in with Obama’s industrial economic policy, which will pick winners and losers in the marketplace—and protect corporate favorites in the name of “national security” and the “war against recession.” While protesting that he wants to lift the tax burden on most of us, Obama has promised to push for a tax hike on the “wealthy”—if anyone is left who fits that description by the time he begins his term. And you can bet us nonwealthy types will be asked to make “sacrifices” for the good of the country, in the name of “unity”—as state and local governments hike tax rates to pay for his gigantic public-works program, another Lincolnian favorite.
For insight into Obama’s Lincolnian character, Newsweek turned to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich—“a self-described ‘student of Lincoln’ and author of two [pretty awful] books on the Civil War”:
He has been impressed by Obama’s use of Lincoln as a prop. But he is waiting to see if Obama is sincere in his emulation. “Obama’s got a liberal voting record, and I don’t know of any substantive issue where he’s ever broken with his leadership,” says Gingrich.
Yet the Republicans preempted any grand gesture of bipartisanship when McCain signed on to that joint endorsement of the bank bailout—and arguably threw the election to the Democrats, perhaps deliberately. A few weeks after the election, Chris Matthews opined on Hardball that if only McCain had opposed the bailout, the outcome might have been different. The Republicans, in short, never gave Obama the chance to “reach out” across the aisle, having broken with their stated principles of small government and fiscal responsibility long before the election.
Doris Kearns Goodwin has been all over the talking-heads circuit, babbling about the “team of rivals” that Obama-Lincoln has assembled, one that will “unite the country” in this time of crisis, which in no way resembles the Civil War, and her bromides have been wielded like a bludgeon in order to stamp out a possible rebellion by Obama’s more sincere followers who are attracted to his ostensibly antiwar stance. The appointment of Hillary Clinton to head up the State Department is a hard pill for many of those followers to swallow, and they finally did so only at the particularly loud insistence of leftist bloggers and print-world opinionmongers, as well as their televised counterparts over at MSNBC. Even the news that Obama is reconsidering a specific timetable for withdrawal—oh, and that “residual force” we’re leaving behind, just in case, will number as many as 70,000—did not phase them. There was not a peep out of the leftist-led “antiwar” brood, or the Hollywood liberals perched around Arianna Huffington and her faux-Drudge website.
With the prospect of the auto industry collapsing, and deflation easily outpacing the government’s efforts to stem it, President Obama will have his hands full with domestic economic matters and will be excused by many “progressives” for ceding the foreign-policy realm to Hillary and her menagerie. Those whose preferred policy stance in the Middle East is stasis will have reason to celebrate, and the bipartisan group behind the push for confronting Iran will have a strong voice and a majority vote in the corridors of power. Of course, one vote—the President’s—is all that’s needed to launch an attack, but it’s a thousand-and-one little decisions, usually made by subordinates, that pave the road to war.
Obama’s identification with Lincoln is all tied up with the issue of race and the idea that an Obama presidency is somehow the fulfillment of the Lincolnian dream of a land where the descendant of slaves could attain the highest office in the land. But of course there is nothing Lincolnian about this dream: Setting aside the fact that Obama is not the descendant of slaves, we must acknowledge, as Obama does in his Time essay, that Lincoln himself did not believe in racial equality and even advocated sending African-Americans back to Africa. But no matter. Mythology is not amenable to fact-checkers. History can always be made to fit into the Procrustean bed of ideology.
In the Bizarro World in which we live, where up is down and the laws of nature and man are stood on their heads, Wall Street’s victorious champion is hailed as a populist hero, even a “progressive.” As unprecedented sums of money poured into his campaign coffers, from every corporate interest—with particular generosity shown by the bankers—Obama was hailed as the great egalitarian whose triumph would strike a blow for the ordinary man. He is the avatar of the new plutocracy, the perfect oreo—a creamy patrician center sandwiched in dark, crunchy populism.
Our time calls for real leaders, but what we are getting are manufactured heroes, draped in historical allusions and set up on a pedestal for us to worship. The priests of the Obama cult intone their prayers and burn incense at his altar, while the Remnant looks on, bemused and not a little frightened, hoping he will not do too much harm.
The potential is there, however, for very great damage. If Obama is ambitious, his advisors are even more so: They might fall into the trap of believing in Dear Leader’s greatness, and their own. They might even come to believe in the Obama-as-Lincoln myth—in which case we are all in some very big trouble. Lincoln, after all, suspended habeas corpus, jailed his opponents, and closed down newspapers that displeased him. I was struck by the audacity of the Time article comparing Obama with Lincoln, in which “humility” was listed as one of our new President’s many virtues. If one can say anything about the 44th President, it is surely that pride bordering on arrogance oozes from his every pore. He acted as if he were already President throughout his campaign: The swearing in, as far as he was concerned, was just a formality. Hubris—the abiding sin of mankind, and the flaw that has brought down more than one of Barack Obama’s predecessors—promises to be the leitmotif of his administration. And pride, as we all know, is what goeth before destruction.
This article first appeared in the February 2009 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.