In NPR’s political news reporting, I found a modern-day invocation of Lincoln from President Obama, which (interestingly enough) actually ties in with the Rockwell painting we looked at on Tuesday, because this particular exchange occurred at a town hall meeting at the University of Maryland. A high school teacher asks a question about compromise in government–namely, whether or not she should still be teaching her students that the two-party system relies on compromise, when the current Congress outright refuses to budge from strict party doctrine. Obama’s full response can be found here, but I’ll quote the most relevant part below;
…there’s this notion — I was actually reading an article on the way over here, and the basic notion was that, well, Obama is responsible, but he doesn’t fight enough for how he believes, and the Republicans are irresponsible but all full of conviction. So this was sort of the way the article was posed. And this notion that somehow if you’re responsible and you compromise, that somehow you’re giving up your convictions — that’s absolutely not true. (Applause.)
I think it’s fair to say that Abraham Lincoln had convictions. But he constantly was making concessions and compromises. I’ve got the Emancipation Proclamation hanging up in the Oval Office, and if you read that document — for those of you who have not read it — it doesn’t emancipate everybody. It actually declares the slaves who are in areas that have rebelled against the Union are free but it carves out various provinces, various parts of various states, that are still in the Union, you can keep your slaves.
Now, think about that. That’s — “the Great Emancipator” was making a compromise in the Emancipation Proclamation because he thought it was necessary in terms of advancing the goals of preserving the Union and winning the war. And then, ultimately, after the war was completed, you then had the 13th and 14th and 15th amendments.
So, you know what, if Abraham Lincoln could make some compromises as part of governance, then surely we can make some compromises when it comes to handling our budget. (Applause.)
Clearly, the goal here is to push back against accusations that Obama is a “weak” president by comparing his situation to that of Lincoln’s during the Civil War. In no way is it as drastic, of course, but the idea is that even one of our greatest presidents (who is highly admired today by both major political parties) had to rely on compromise for the sake of the greater good (even if it didn’t necessarily help accomplish every one of his goals), because some progress is better than none. Obama compares this to the situation in Congress, trying to show that his willingness to work with the other side is not an act of Democratic weakness, but rather of practicality and necessity.
Bearing in mind that this was in 2011 (aka prime campaigning time for his reelection), it makes sense that he would use these town hall meetings as an opportunity to boost his image after a somewhat rocky first term, and what better way to do it than to invoke the legacy of one of the most iconic American presidents of all time?