Barack Obama has been accused of hubris and arrogance for his continuing references of identification with Abraham Lincoln, who by the measure of many was the greatest of all our presidents.
"In Lincoln's rise from poverty, his ultimate mastery of language and law, his capacity to overcome personal loss and remain determined in the face of repeated defeat ... he reminded me not just of my own struggles," he told Time magazine as he set out in his quest for the White House. "He also reminded me of a larger fundamental element of American life -- the enduring beliefs that we can constantly remake ourselves to fit our larger dreams."
Hubris or not, Obama seeks a hero worthy of imitation, but the obvious similarities tell us little about what to expect. Both are lanky lawyers from Illinois, with scant legislative and no administrative experience. Both are relatively young for the White House, and both are endowed with a gift of powerful eloquence. Both came to Washington with "potential." Lincoln's biography has been filled out in thousands of books documenting his accomplishments and failures.
He may be the most written about man after Christ and Shakespeare; new books flourish with fresh information. More than one biographer points out how Lincoln was strong enough to put his enemies and antagonists in his Cabinet, welcoming challenges from strong leaders with whom he disagreed. They suggest that Obama follows in Lincoln's footsteps with the appointments of Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates. But, like Lincoln's, the mixed Obama Cabinet may show mixed results.
Both men suffered from associations with smarmy men. Southerners blamed Lincoln for the incendiary rhetoric of abolitionist John Brown, who was hanged for leading armed insurrection to free the slaves. Lincoln condemned Brown's murderous tactics but did not extend his criticism to sympathizers who advocated peaceful means to make their points. He urged mutual respect for differing opinions when it was difficult to reach middle ground.
"Jeremiah Wright was Obama's John Brown," writes historian Gary Wills in the New York Review of Books. Obama separated himself from the anti-American message of his pastor, saying his message arose from "a profoundly distorted view of this country" and failed to recognize how America had changed in providing opportunity to blacks.
Obama, like Lincoln, did not condemn those who listened to Wright for a different message. He said Wright preached a message of personal responsibility as well as hatred of America, asking the congregation to demand more from fathers, to spend more time with their children, reading to them and teaching them to accept challenges.