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.
Comparisons 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 www.gettysburg.edu/cw2013.
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
Next on your reading list
Share this story: