A slow president

Obama will win.  He will be an unpopular president during most of his term.  Republicans will gain seats in Congress during his administration. But Obama will help to reconnect our civic life with our constitutional values.  If he lives, he will be reelected.

Or he could lose this year.  Or win and be popular.  It just helps me to understand Obama by projecting him against a blank future.

Obama will be unpopular because he is chiefly concerned with reconnecting us with our national ideals.  This concern will cause him to take a very long time to make some important decisions, and many will view his protracted decision-making as evidence of a weak presidency.  His vacillation will be more pronounced in time of crisis, because he considers decisions politically (like all presidents), patriotically (like many presidents), and constitutionally (like few presidents).  By “patriotically,” I mean he cares how the decision will leave our nation in the long run.  By “constitutionally,” I mean he cares how the decision will leave our Constitution and our relationship to it in the long run.

Because our national ideals and constitutional values are often at odds with short-term politics, his decisions – when he gets around to making them – will often be unpopular.  But the process even more than the product will drive many crazy.

In other words, Obama will be unpopular because he will be slow.  But Obama might just be as slow as the best of them: Abraham Lincoln.

We’re familiar with most of the parallels between Lincoln and Obama, of course.  Both men are Illinois lawyers who never run anything, really, before becoming president.  (I refer to Lincoln in the present tense for ease of comparison.)  Both men grow up distant from their fathers, one emotionally and the other physically.  Both men are seen as theorists and orators whose talents arguably would be more suited for the legislature, but both men are drawn to the presidency not by ambition alone but by a desire to address fundamental discrepancies between what our nation was meant to be and what it is.  Before his presidential campaign really begins, each man becomes nationally known initially only for a single, electrifying speech he gives in the Northeast to party faithful.  The campaigns of both men emphasize their candidates’ humble origins and deemphasize their candidates’ careers in law.  Both men win their party’s nominations as dark horses against highly favored candidates from New York, favorites who many party leaders fear would be too divisive in a general election.  Each man benefits from running at the end of his rival party’s unpopular administration in an election year favoring his own party’s general prospects.

Some of these parallels are almost as meaningless as the ones I read as a child between Lincoln and John Kennedy (e.g., the myth that each had a secretary who shared the other’s last name).  For me, though, the most important parallels between Lincoln and Obama have to do with what makes them both slow executives: a driving desire to connect policy and public with constitutional ideals and broad principles.

Obama takes a long time to respond concerning important matters.  When he finally responds, he responds conceptually, sometimes to good effect and sometimes not.  He is slow to distance himself from Reverend Wright.  When he finally reacts to the public’s distaste for the clips of Wright’s sermons, though, it is in the form of a critically acclaimed speech that addresses race in America in fresh, constructive ways.  Then he is slow to respond to accusations that he is unpatriotic.  He finally reacts with a speech just before Independence Day this year that advocates a broader, less divisive concept of patriotism.  It is not a stirring speech, though, and it is not as well received as his earlier address on race.

Lincoln’s final speech is to a fired-up crowd that comes to the White House to celebrate the successful end of the Civil War.  Lincoln uses the occasion to offer an olive branch to the South and to outline a generous philosophy for admitting the succeeding states back into the Union.  Disappointed, the crowd starts to thin out before the speech ends.

Whether or not Lincoln’s and Obama’s more-important speeches are successful, they are usually theoretical in nature, connecting current events with broader themes.  Both Lincoln’s and Obama’s speeches generally make for terrible sound bites, since neither Lincoln nor Obama relies on cute turns of phrase.  Their rhetoric has a lawyerlike force that requires a longer attention span.  Fortunately, both men know how to keep their audience’s attention.  Both men are good writers, and one could use the best of both men’s writings as texts for teaching both rhetoric and prose.

But most of the force in both Lincoln’s and Obama’s speeches comes not from their literary and rhetorical skills but from the way they connect current events to constitutional values our government fails to live up to.  Indeed, both men know constitutional law well: Lincoln obsessively studied it late nights during the 1850’s in reaction to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and Obama taught it for over a decade.

But this same felt connection to forgotten national values – values rooted in involved political and legal theory – that makes both men electrifying speakers also makes them slow executives.

Lincoln claims as president-elect that he “never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.”  For sure, Lincoln is a political animal; Lincoln’s law partner and biographer William Herndon famously describes his political ambition as “a little engine that knew no rest.”  But Lincoln’s claim about his political thinking is a fair one.  As president, his decisions are generally made to advance a Whiggish view of the Declaration of Independence, a view that is best expressed in his Gettysburg Address. (See Allen C. Guelzo’s Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President for an explanation of the Whig philosophy behind Lincoln’s political thought.)

At the war’s outset, the North has one goal: preserve the Union.  After the Emancipation Proclamation, the North adds the destruction of slavery to the original war aim of preserving the Union.  The Civil War amendments, bracing in their simplicity, accept African Americans as citizens.  And, long after Lincoln is dead, the Gettysburg Address helps the nation coalesce its constitutional thinking around “all men are created equal” as a guiding principle.  Lincoln takes advantage of a war he never intentionally prolongs to fundamentally change our relationship to the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence (not to mention the Northwest Ordinance and several other founding documents – heck, he helps change how we look at the Founding Fathers).  For Lincoln, a change in what we all believe is change you can believe in.

Lincoln is derided as slow and vacillating, and this perception is accurate.  During the first months of his presidency, for instance, he seems to take forever to decide how to respond to the South’s attack on Fort Sumter.  Like any president would, Lincoln considers his options from a political and military standpoint.  Like few presidents, though, Lincoln considers his options from a constitutional standpoint, too.  I do not mean only that he considers whether various actions he could take would be consistent with the Constitution.  Lincoln considers also whether his options would preserve the constitution and augment its role in our civic life. Changing a country’s constitutional viewpoint is slow work advanced only by an astute and principled politician with a cool temperament.

But his constitutional scruples make Lincoln come across as weak and slow.  Lincoln is slow by nature, too; someone who generally likes to weigh matters long past the time the country or the Congress wants him to act.  He is slow to fire generals and cabinet members, and he is slow to take offense, even when his failing, top general who despises him walks past his own study where he knew Lincoln is waiting to speak to him, and goes to bed.  He almost loses the war, and he almost loses the 1864 election to that same general who has a completely different view of the Constitution and of the North’s proper war aims than he has.

Obama responds to his opponents’ unfair attacks with preternatural patience – a patience that frequently drives me crazy.  Like Lincoln, Obama doesn’t respond in kind to many attacks, and he seems to believe that the public can be drawn to act by “the better angels of our nature,” to use Lincoln’s phrase.  Obama appears not to see the danger in his opponents’ unfair charges even though he frequently says that he does.  This vulnerability attracts a following of people who wish to protect him.  Together, they give millions of dollars each time one of his opponents attacks him in a particularly unfair and potentially effective manner.  Lincoln also frequently finds himself explaining his failure to strike back at opponents, and his inside people are insanely loyal and protective of him, too, according to one of Lincoln’s biographers, Stephen Oates. People who know Lincoln or Obama well often describe a certain vulnerability they sense.

So maybe Obama’s slowness comes from his need to sound out how each of his options may square with broader principles, as I suggest here.  Or maybe he’s slow because he’s a listener and a negotiator, a problem-solver and a consensus-builder (perhaps, like Lincoln, starting with his powerful cabinet – see Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln). Maybe Obama is slow because he’s stubborn: he’s not easily intimidated or goaded or tricked into reacting.  He could be slow also because he’s simply more comfortable weighing major decisions over a period of time.  He’s slow, though, for some or perhaps all of the above reasons.  Today even more than in the 1860’s, Americans seem to prefer a take-charge, decisive CEO-type in the White House, and that’s neither what they got with Lincoln nor what they’ll get with Obama.