My essay from the special Inaugural issue of Newsweek, on news stands now:
Learning While LeadingThe most important lesson Lincoln could teach Obama is that he will need to school himself.
At the risk of disabusing the messianic comparisons of the qualities that Lincoln and Obama brought full-blown to the presidency, what is being missed is how much Lincoln taught himself to be president on the job. Painfully aware of his own shortcomings – in administrative abilities and military understanding, to name but two – the success of Lincoln’s presidency lay not simply in the nature of his political genius, nurtured as both a politician and lawyer in Illinois, but in the hard work he expended day after wearing day in the White House. In the years after his death, Lincoln’s Illinois friends formed a harmonious chorus – “we knew it all the time” – but in truth many were surprised at how fast and far “Old Abe” grew into being president.
Lincoln came to the presidency, as does Obama, with a lack of executive familiarity, and Lincoln’s first few weeks in office did not inspire confidence that he could launch and run a new administration. Lincoln was well aware of his own administrative inexperience. At first he tried to carry out everything by himself. He acknowledged to an old Illinois friend his initial floundering. “When [I] first commenced doing the duties, [I] was entirely ignorant not only of the duties, but of the manner of doing the business” of the presidency. His young secretary John Hay remembered, “There was little order or system about it.” He reported, “Those around him strove from beginning to end to erect barriers to defend him against constant interruption, but the President himself was always the first to break them down.” Sen. Henry Wilson of Massachusetts once tried to counsel the president about his availability to people: “You will wear yourself out.” Lincoln replied, “They don’t want much; they get but little, and I must see them.”
Lincoln learned to be a more than competent administrator. He continued to hold frequent public hours where he could hear the points of view of ordinary people – what he called his “public opinion baths” – but he became skilled at prioritizing his most important tasks. After an initial tussle over who would be king of the hill, he and Secretary of State William Seward developed an amiable and productive working relationship. As the chief lawyer in the White House, Lincoln often asked his cabinet members, almost all lawyers, to submit written briefs in response to critical questions to be decided. He gained the respect of his colleagues by listening to and learning from their opinions, even when their ideas differed from his. He became well aware that Salmon P. Chase, one of his rivals for the Republican nomination in 1860, was criticizing him behind his back, but Lincoln said he had “determined to shut his eyes to all these performances” because he believed Chase to be quite good at his job as secretary of the Treasury. Although Lincoln endured complaints that the cabinet did not meet often enough, Lincoln more than made up for this by his leadership style of walking around -visiting cabinet officials as well as Gen. George McClellan at their offices and even their homes.
Second, Lincoln came to the presidency keenly conscious of his limited military experience. In the Black Hawk War in 1832 he served for three months as a private and a captain. Obama brings no military experience. By contrast, Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, had graduated from West Point, commanded a regiment in the Mexican War and served with distinction as secretary of war from 1853 to 1857.
As commander in chief Lincoln understood that he faced a steep learning curve. Yet his whole adult life had consisted of self-education. and he welcomed the challenge. Just as he had become a self-taught lawyer in rural Illinois, he now set out to teach himself military theory and strategy. Following the humiliating defeat at the Battle of Bull Run in July 1861, Lincoln turned his full attention to the military strategy that would carry out his national policy. A day after Bull Run, Lincoln wrote out the lessons to be learned from defeat. As summer turned into fall he began to assume responsibilities that had never been wielded before by an American president. By November Hay wrote, “The President is himself a man of great aptitude for military studies.” By now Lincoln was so present at the War Department that “many of the orders issuing from the War Department are penned by the hand of the President.” In December his secretary John G. Nicolay observed that Lincoln “gave himself, night and day, to the study of the military situation. He read a large number of strategical works. He pored over the reports from the various departments and districts of the field of war. He held long conferences with eminent generals and admirals, and astonished them by the extent of his special knowledge.” Increasingly the books piling up on the long cabinet table in his office became military books. By early 1862 he would become a knowledgeable, hands-on commander in chief determined that military strategy and generals would serve the larger ends of national policy.
In predicting how a president-elect will perform as a president, there are many indicators that can be gleaned from the past. James Buchanan, Lincoln’s immediate predecessor, who served 20 years in the House and Senate and had been both secretary of state and minister to Russia, brought enormous political experience, but he failed to grow into the job and proved to be a weak and ineffectual president.
Toward the conclusion of his reflection on the Constitution in “The Audacity of Hope,” Obama states, “I am left then with Lincoln.” The remarkable personal tether that Obama has long felt toward Abraham Lincoln blossomed into public view at the beginning of his candidacy in Springfield, Ill., on a cold day in February 2007, and at the conclusion of the presidential campaign in his victory speech at Grant Park in Chicago on Nov. 4, 2008. Since then their parallel personal traits, seen most visibly in their eloquent speaking abilities, have become well known. In this year of the Lincoln bicentennial, Lincoln continues to fascinate Obama and us because he eludes simple definitions and final judgments. If one had made a judgment on Lincoln as administrator in 1862, or commander in chief in 1863, the verdict would have been negative by many, including leaders of his own party, and mixed at best. But Lincoln was still learning his job. The jury is about to be seated that will hear the evidence about lawyer and legislator Obama as administrator and commander in chief. He knows more than anyone else there is much yet to learn from Lincoln.
Ronald C. White, Jr. is the author “A. Lincoln: A Biography” and a visiting professor of history at UCLA. His previous books include “Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural” and “The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words.”
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