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Obama failing the Lincoln test

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Michael Gerson
September 13, 2011
— During his recent speech to Congress, President Obama gave Republicans this ideological glove to the face: “We all remember Abraham Lincoln as the leader who saved our Union. … But in the middle of a Civil War, he was also a leader who looked to the future—a Republican president who mobilized government to build the Transcontinental Railroad, launch the National Academy of Sciences, set up the first land-grant colleges.”

It is a familiar rhetorical tactic—an attempt to checkmate your opponent by moving his own king. During Ronald Reagan’s 1980 Republican convention speech, he quoted Franklin Roosevelt on the need to “eliminate unnecessary functions of government.” Countless Republicans have offered up John F. Kennedy on the efficacy of tax cuts.


But invoking Lincoln at the seance is always risky. He is not a tame spirit.


There is little doubt that the greatest Republican would now be viewed, in portions of his party, as a RINO—a Republican in Name Only. Lincoln was a lifelong advocate of Whig economics, in which government took a limited but vigorous role in promoting economic opportunity. Lincoln foresaw a vast, prosperous, commercial republic, bound and strengthened by a national bank and by publicly financed roads, canals and rails. He had little patience with Thomas Jefferson’s anti-government ideology. A great nation, in Lincoln’s view, would require free labor, public education and avenues for commerce.


This type of Republicanism is a challenge to tea party ideology, as Obama implied in his speech. Yet Obama still looks awkward in the stovepipe hat. Lincoln was an enthusiast for entrepreneurial capitalism. Government’s goal was to promote opportunity and social mobility, not to assure certain economic outcomes. Lincoln asserted a “harmony of interests” between the working class and the wealthy because the goal of the working class, in his view, was to become the wealthy.


“We do not propose any war upon capital,” he said. The objective is “to allow the humblest man an equal chance to get rich with everybody else.”


But Obama’s largest economic failing comes on precisely the point where he praises Lincoln as a leader who looked to the future.


It is now clear that the economic crisis faced by Obama at the beginning of his term was not a normal recession. Cleaning up after a financial panic adds an extra degree of difficulty. But this downturn also intensified a set of concerns about the continued viability of the American economic model in a time of aggressive global competition. An insatiable entitlement system, a burdensome tax code, a gridlocked political system and a broadly failing education system (apart from world-class universities) are leading many to suspect that America’s global standing is in relative decline.


Yet Obama’s response to this extraordinary challenge was utterly ordinary. He pushed a typical Democratic stimulus plan, which mainly transferred funds to state and local governments and public employee unions. He added a new health entitlement and argued for higher taxes on the wealthy. In Obama’s favor, his Race to the Top education reform was innovative. But he made the entitlement problem worse, ignored his own Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction commission, directed attention away from meaningful tax reform and—with three years of budget deficits each exceeding $1 trillion—provoked a bitter national argument on the size and role of government. How could anyone have imagined that Obama’s tired, mid-century Keynesianism would reassure investors, creditors and consumers? And it didn’t.


Obama’s joint-session speech at least mentioned some of the real issues—an unsustainable Medicare system and a complex, inefficient tax code. But his policy initiatives are still largely focused on mitigating current employment problems, not on unleashing the next round of American growth and enterprise. The modern equivalent of Lincoln’s transcontinental railroad is not to build another one right next to it. It is, among other things, serious entitlement reform, a simpler tax code and regulatory structure, and education reform—particularly on teacher quality and parental choice—that would make education unions scream and swoon.

America has stumbled into the age of shoddy. Our deficits mount, our politicians squabble, our credit is downgraded, our firms can’t compete, our workers lose hope, our military is about to be hollowed out by massive cuts. Obama can rightly complain that he didn’t cause all of this. But he also didn’t muster much ideological creativity to fight it. He has been unable to think anew and act anew—and so fails the Lincoln test.


Michael Gerson is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group; email michaelgerson@washpost.com.

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