Prof. Shirley Anne Warshaw authors presidential leadership piece in NY Times

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Gettysburg College Prof. Shirley Anne Warshaw authored a piece on presidential leadership, comparing Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama, that appeared in the Feb. 10 New York Times Sunday Review, two days before Lincoln’s birthday and Obama’s State of the Union address on Feb. 12.

Her piece is the second in a seven-part series sponsored by Gettysburg College as we join the country in commemorating the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War.

The full text of Warshaw’s piece is below.

150 years apart: Transformational presidents 

As the nation prepares to celebrate President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday this week and commemorates the Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War, it is an opportune time to compare the two presidents that bracket these 150 years, Lincoln and President Barack Obama.

Shirley Anne WarshawComparisons begin with bonds. While comparisons routinely focus on the personal bonds that connect Lincoln and Obama, noting for instance that both were former Illinois legislators, lawyers with keen minds, and gifted orators, the more significant comparison is often overlooked: the resolve by each of these two men, separated across two centuries, to use the vast resources of the federal government to remedy social and economic injustice and to solve major problems that states alone could or would not address. It is their approach to leadership that connects these two presidents and transcends their other bonds and similarities.

Each entered office as the nation was engaged in crisis. Even before Lincoln was inaugurated in 1861, seven southern states had seceded. Weeks later, Confederate troops attacked Fort Sumter, signaling irreconcilable differences on the issue of slavery. The southern economy was dependent upon the inexpensive labor force that slaves provided. Lincoln understood the economic necessity of slaves in the agriculturally-based south and the imperative of destroying that base.

However, for Lincoln, the question of slavery was inextricably tied to injustice. During his presidency he had grown more passionate about the issue of slavery. Lincoln’s simple reasoning in the Emancipation Proclamation was that freeing the slaves was “an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution.” He continued his pursuit of justice by securing passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, which ensured that slavery “shall not exist in the United States.” Not only was justice secured by Lincoln’s actions, but his resolve to use the resources of the federal government to deny secession preserved the union.

For Obama, the issues are different but his vision is the same: how the federal government can prevent injustice and ensure fundamental rights within the nation’s boundaries. While the country was not in danger of dissolving when Obama came to office, it was in serious danger of economic collapse. States were unable to deal with the economic crisis.

Stabilizing the economy could only have been accomplished at the federal level. Staving off further financial disaster meant ushering an economic stimulus program, federal loan guarantees, and new banking regulations through Congress. For Obama, allowing millions of families to lose their homes and their jobs, family farms and businesses to fail, and large corporations to close their doors, would have jeopardized the fabric of American society. Few in the nation would have escaped the domino effect of the economic collapse.

It is not coincidental that President Obama is delivering his State of the Union Address on February 12th, Lincoln’s birthday. The perhaps not-so-subtle intention to link these two administrations around a single premise is clear: the federal government must rise to the challenge of ensuring fundamental rights and preserving economic security. The legacy that binds these two presidents is their belief that the federal government can and should intervene when states succumb to narrow interests -- and when states are unwilling or unable to find solutions to problems that have no geographic boundaries. National issues require national solutions.

Shirley Anne Warshaw is a professor of political science, the Harold G. Evans Chair of Eisenhower Leadership Studies and a presidential scholar.

Find out more about Gettysburg College's Sesquicentennial Commemoration of the American Civil War and the New York Times series at

Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition. Alumni include Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate, and other distinguished scholars. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

Contact: Nikki Rhoads, senior assistant director of communications, 717.337.6803

Posted: Sun, 10 Feb 2013


While I agree with Professor Warshaw's premise that both Lincoln and Obama have been transformational figures in American history, I disagree with her conclusion regarding the efficacy of a large centralized government. The professor cites President Obama's vision of the federal government as a means to "prevent injustice and ensure fundamental rights within the nations borders." While no one would support an unjust system or deny fundamental rights, it becomes a problem of definition. Justice and fundamental rights are lofty principles that can easily be misapplied to create "equality of outcome" as a goal. A case in point is the "Obama phone." While the program to provide free telephones to the underprivileged began in 1984, Obama's massive expansion of the program has brought new prominence, scrutiny and the "Obama phone" moniker. According to today's Wall Street Journal, an FCC audit found 41% of the current "free phone" recipients are ineligible, have multiple free phones or haven't provided necessary documentation. The program costs over two billion dollars annually. To make matters worse, the funding of the program comes from a tax on everyone who pays for their own phone service. So basically, the government has not only seized my tax money to run the program, it has failed to administer the program in a cost-efficient way. That leaves aside the issue of exactly where in the constitution is says a free phone with 250 "emergency minutes," international and long-distance service is a basic human right. So I agree that Barack Obama is in the process of transforming America along a European social democracy template. However, far from a federal government curing society's ills, I see a dysfunctional federal government where we haven't had a budget in 4 years, are over 16 trillion dollars in debt and running a trillion dollar annual deficit. We face an anemic recovery, credit downgrades, sequester and have daunting unfunded liabilities for both Social Security and Medicare. Unfunded liabilities, I might add, that resulted from years of congressional misappropriation of SS and Medicare contributions into other government programs. Partisans can assign blame, but neither party is serving the American people, and the president is confrontational, at best. I fear the State of the Union will be just another chance to vilify the Republicans without advancing the national dialog. In short, I don't have Professor Warshaw's confidence in our federal government. I believe the answer is limited government providing the essential services that states cannot accomplish on their own. Our constitution was written to preserve the individual rights and freedoms of our citizens and limit the reach of the federal government. To hammer that home, the Bill of Rights gets very specific about what the government can't do. When the federal government starts giving away telephones, several quotes from Thomas Jefferson should come to mind.

Dr. Ken Elrod - 1972 | Posted Feb 12, 2013 01:57 PM

Gifted orator? Surely this is said in jest. Our current president has repeatedly demonstrated he cannot speak clearly without teleprompters. And surely there must be a history professor with both feet on the groud who can fill the author in on the real reason for the war. The only good comparison of the two I find were the unconstitutional acts both engaged in. Lincoln imprisoned those who spoke out against him. He locked up journalists and legislators in Maryland. Obama denies the first amendment to anyone who opposed him or his administration anywhere in the country where Secret Service agents are working. He has bypassed Congress and the Constitution more than once. In this regard, I do believe there is an argument to be made that the two were similar, but not in any favorable way. Both have become an embarrassment to our country, despite revisionist history and despite social and political science academia opinions of the actual facts.

Dan Diviney | Posted Feb 20, 2013 09:57 PM



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