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.



  1. Peter (
    maggie, I’ve been waiting for years for someone to ask me that! My answer got so long that I made it a separate post. Thanks so much for asking!

    Evan, I wonder. Every previous third party that polled over, say, twenty percent nationally, I think, seemed to spell the end for one of the then-existing major parties. Or they were one-shot deals like the Bull Moose Party. We’ve never settled down to having more than two major parties. I’m sure someone has written about why, but I don’t know.
    September 28, 2008, 9:00:42 PM EDT – Reply – Edit – Moderate

    Evan (
    Speaking of party formers, like Lincoln, I think the time is coming, and soon, when some Ron Paul or Howard Dean person will manage to peel off enough constituents to form a third party — if they can figure a way around being portrayed as ‘ridiculous’ in the media. On the right, they have tycoon-charlatans dressed up as common men eating pork rinds and on the left, timid people like Obama and The Clintons who seem to both be slightly to the right of the Nixon Administration on Social Issues.

    And both sides parroting the Thomas Freidman message that exporting all of our manufacturing and agricultural (real) jobs was inevitable. None of the front runners in either party seem to represent the blue collar or lower-middle class in any meaningful way. That situation seems pregnant with 3rd party potential.
    September 28, 2008, 10:32:12 AM EDT – Reply – Edit – Moderate

    maggie (
    I would love to know what Lincoln biographies are you’re favorites. I haven’t read anything on Lincoln in a LONG time, but would love to read something fresh on him.

    Trip is wonderful.
    September 28, 2008, 4:59:53 AM EDT – Reply – Edit – Moderate

    Peter (
    Evan and Maggie, thanks so much for your very thoughtful comments.

    Evan, you’re right: Bach does get a lot of air time after school and on teacher work days. I even play it during some kinds of writing practice.

    Maggie, I didn’t know you were a Lincoln nut! So am I. I hope your trip is going well. I also don’t agree with Obama on every issue, including some important ones. But I also like the cut of his jib.
    September 27, 2008, 1:06:09 PM EDT – Reply – Edit – Moderate

    maggie (
    Good thoughts and fascinating essay, Peter. I have found Obama’s thoughtfulness especially appealing. Actually, the times that he has been criticized for carefully picking his words (i.e. during the press conference when he traveled to Iraq), I felt a sign that he was deeply thinking through the issues and their implications. For myself, it has made me feel he is more qualified not less.

    I would like a thinking president, and don’t feel the need to agree with him on every issue if I have a sense that he is deeply thinking things through. Abraham Lincoln was my favorite president, and was probably my childhood hero (I read tons of books on him as a child). I’ve long wondered if a president as thoughtful as Lincoln could get elected today. I guess we’ll find out in November.

    Evan, funny, I actually agree that we are in a battle for the nation’s soul, but reconnecting with our soul may not happen the way that the Christian evangelical community imagines.

    September 23, 2008, 11:33:53 PM EDT – Reply – Edit – Moderate

    Evan (
    It may be really mind-blowing to be back again with an intellectual president. I wonder if he speaks a foreign language.

    Your Obama prediction has a calming effect on me. It reminds me that, in spite of all the hyperbole of an election, the result can be mundane.
    My dad, a conservative, sent me the same analysis he does every national election: that he’s down on his knees because this one will be a battle for the nation’s soul. Whereas he percieved Clinton as a red-handed murderer (of Vince Foster) and John Kerry as some trilateral infiltrator imposter, he has hinted to me that Satan himself, Old Scratch, is somehow on the committee to elect Obama. I wish I had a stomach to ask him more but I pretty much ignore his emails when they’re political.

    Re music top tens, thanks for taking the time to share yours. Looks fine to me. Of all the Who songs to choose!…I’ll have to re-listen to Mike Post. I think I got distracted by other cuts on that Endless Wire.

    I think that was a nice list, anyhow. The Bach cello gets some rotation when trying to block out work distractions I’m sure.
    September 16, 2008, 11:12:02 PM EDT – Reply – Edit – Moderate

    Peter (
    Seeming empathetic is nothing I want in a president, but it seems to matter to a lot of people. (Though it’s not quite as big as “identity politics” — another sick reason to pick a president.) I guess LBJ was the last non-empathetic-seeming Democrat to win the White House. I don’t think Obama comes across as empathetic. Maybe worse for him is that so many people feel like they don’t have a good notion of him. (I’ve felt a visceral connection with him from the first time I heard him speak, however. (Another poor way to pick a president, but I do claim more acceptable reasons for rooting for him.))
    September 15, 2008, 9:59:41 PM EDT – Reply – Edit – Moderate

    Jarrett (
    “… some of the aging will be from how deeply he feels his job.”

    Interesting, because at once that calls to mind Jimmy Carter, who campaigned as a president who would “share your joy and feel your pain”. and who aged about 20 years in his four short years in office.

    Comparison with Carter brings me back to this metallic side to Obama, the side that people don’t want to warm to. Obama’s empathy never seems to take him to the point where his own sense of himself is at risk.

    September 15, 2008, 8:14:46 AM EDT – Reply – Edit – Moderate

    Peter (
    I agree. I think, though, that Lincoln’s depression was once side of a brooding personality that I also see hints of in Obama. Herndon called Lincoln “the most shut-mouthed man I ever met,” despite Lincoln’s public loquacity. Obama is a thinker, of course, but I think he crosses the line into broodiness sometimes.

    If he wins, I think he’ll come out looking a lot older, just as Lincoln aged so visibly during his first term. If he does win and age, I hazard that some of the aging will be from how deeply he feels his job.
    September 14, 2008, 10:09:15 AM EDT – Reply – Edit – Moderate

    Jarrett (
    This is clear and calm and slow in the best sense.

    Lincoln’s slowness, of course, had another dimension that I don’t see in Obama. Today we’d call it depression. I would be surprised if Obama has had a minute of it.
    September 14, 2008, 8:58:18 AM EDT – Reply – Edit – Moderate

    Peter (
    Pete, the electoral college does seem to serve no purpose now. For one thing, candidates only campaign in “battleground” states and ignore the rest of the country. As a Virginian, I can’t remember when we had visits from presidential candidates post-primary before this year. Now it seems like they’re here constantly.

    Leslee, yeah, Obama could tie McCain to Bush on the fast vs. slow issue. Bush makes unadvised decisions we later regret, and McCain does, too. But Obama really means a leadership-style change, and I think many Americans can’t figure out or describe how he operates.

    She did seem decisive last night. Didn’t have a clue what the Bush Doctrine is, sided with Obama against McCain on the issue of ignoring Pakistani sovereignty if we knew bin Laden was there, and seemed to take a possible war with Russia over Georgia in stride, but she was certainly decisive.

    Beryl, thank you! I don’t think you can forward a blog post, but feel free to copy and paste any of my stuff into an email! You can also email a link to it, if that’s easier.
    September 12, 2008, 8:02:20 PM EDT – Reply – Edit – Moderate

    Beryl Singleton Bissell (
    A terrific post Peter. I’ve printed it up to read to my husband (he can read, but we read to one another while driving — which we do a lot of up here. Unfortunately). Is it possible to forward this? Perhaps a “slow president” will catch on like the “slow food” movement. Though food for the mind is not what the public seems to want.
    September 12, 2008, 3:40:14 PM EDT – Reply – Edit – Moderate

    leslee (
    I was with friends last night when Sarah Palin’s interview came on the TV, which they had on in the background. When she was asked about accepting McCain’s VP spot, she said she said yes without even blinking. I said, “What??” Accepting a position like that without even thinking it through? Without conferring with her family? Without thinking if she really was qualified, whether to leave her current post that she hasn’t been in very long? She went on to respond to foreign policy questions saying that you can never hesitate, etc. I thought, oh great, another president who doesn’t think things through and consider the most wise choice of actions.

    The commentators said she followed through with the McCain campaign’s plan for her to appear sure of herself and decisive. It’s what most Americans seem to value.

    I, too, would love to see a slow President in the White House. Thanks for this thoughtful post, Peter.
    September 12, 2008, 10:18:42 AM EDT – Reply – Edit – Moderate

    Pete (
    Would love to see a slow president in the White House but I fear that (as with 2000 or even 2004) the (outdated) electoral college system will mean that the Republicans can win without winning the popular vote. Where’s the justice in that? Anyway, thanks for and interesting and thoughtful post.
    September 10, 2008, 9:48:03 AM EDT – Reply – Edit – Moderate

    Peter (
    dale and Dana, thanks, and I agree with both points.

    Thanks, Bill! And I’m afraid I’m right behind you!
    September 7, 2008, 6:40:32 PM EDT – Reply – Edit – Moderate

    Bill (
    In sum, what a great change of pace from the Huffington Post, which I’m afraid I am going to go right bach to!
    September 7, 2008, 1:54:37 PM EDT – Reply – Edit – Moderate

    Bill (
    Reading this I am electrified by a hope that we might have a president whose speeches will matter, and be studied, 100 years from now. For me, who am of late so distracted by strategy and contest — attack and counter-attack — this is both a very educational post (no one I read is mentioning Obama’s long term engagement with the constitution). Your astute appraisal that “he is chiefly concerned with reconnecting us with our national ideals” both clarifies and give structure to my poorly formed idea of who Obama is. You are making observations which strike me as original, rare and valuable.
    September 7, 2008, 12:18:19 PM EDT – Reply – Edit – Moderate

    Dana (
    “It just helps me to understand Obama by projecting him against a blank future.”

    It helps me to understand *everyone* by projecting them against a blank future, especially myself.
    September 6, 2008, 9:43:06 PM EDT – Reply – Edit – Moderate

    dale (
    Beautiful. Let’s hope we get a slow president! The country desperately needs one.
    September 6, 2008, 6:34:35 PM EDT – Reply – Edit – Moderate

  2. I’m sure I read this when you wrote it, but it’s certainly worth rereading, even if Lincoln never had a secretary named Kennedy. U think Nate Silver ought to hire you as a non-statistical analyst.

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