Obama faces deep crisis

Published: Tuesday, January 20, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 19, 2009 at 10:34 p.m.

On the campaign trail and since the election, President-elect Barack Obama has frequently proclaimed Abraham Lincoln his political hero.

Beyond the admiration, the parallels between the two men are numerous.

Both served approximately seven years in the Illinois legislature and two years in Congress before winning the presidency.

Like Lincoln, Obama is known as an electrifying speechmaker and a gifted writer.

Each has played a major role in African-American history. Lincoln freed the slaves through the Emancipation Proclamation and victory in the Civil War. Approximately 140 years later, Obama was elected as the country's first black president.

Obama has done nothing to downplay the Lincoln connection. Instead, he has tried to build on it.

On the campaign trail, he said he planned to build a Cabinet of political rivals as Lincoln did in a time of crisis.

Obama followed the same Philadelphia-to-Washington, D.C., train route Lincoln took to his first inauguration.

On Sunday, the country's 44th president-to-be paid honor to the country's 16th president during an event at the Lincoln Memorial. Today, he will place his left hand on the same Bible as Lincoln did and take the oath of office.

"Barack Obama has definitely identified Abraham Lincoln as a role model," said University of Florida American history professor Paul Ortiz.

"Lincoln, for him, is a huge character because Lincoln steered the country through turbulent times - the bloodiest Civil War in human history up to that point.

"Make no mistake about it," Ortiz said. "Lincoln was the most hated president in American history. The South despised him. Many people in the North despised him, as well. But he was able to keep his calm in this very turbulent period. And Obama is inheriting a mess.

"Who would want to be the president of the United States at this point in time?"

Ortiz said parallels between their political careers are already evident before Obama takes office.

"Both men have changed significantly in office - Lincoln as president, Obama as a senator," Ortiz said. "Both became responsive to grassroots pressure."

Ortiz pointed to a book penned by Harvard professor John Stauffer, "Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln."

Ortiz said Stauffer wrote that Lincoln did not target slavery at the outset of the Civil War. But after pressure from the abolitionist movement - including the advice of his friend, Douglass, a former slave - Lincoln determined that declaring to end slavery and recruiting black troops was the only way to win the Civil War.

The grassroots pressure in Obama's case involves bringing an end to the war in Iraq, ending the use of controversial harsh interrogation techniques, like waterboarding, that some consider torture and turning around the economy.

"If he loses touch with that grassroots constituency that put him in office his presidency will be seen as a failure," Ortiz said.

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