President Obama likes to encourage comparisons to Abraham Lincoln. Emulating Lincoln, for his inauguration he took a train from Illinois to Washington, D.C., where at his request he took the oath of office with his hand on Lincoln’s bible. Many in the media have made the same connection. Newsweek pictured the two men together on its cover and also depicted a penny featuring Obama’s face in place of Lincoln’s.
We too find ourselves frequently thinking of Lincoln when we hear Obama. But what strikes us is not the comparison but the contrast. True, both are lanky former lawyers with a connection to Illinois, and both spent all or part of just a single term in Congress before ascending to the White House. However, these similarities are relatively superficial, while the contrasts run deep.
Lincoln revered the American founding and dedicated his life to advancing its principles. Obama follows more in the tradition of Woodrow Wilson, who sought to repudiate the founding and replace its ideals of limited government with the progressive ideal of faith in a centralized administrative state (although Obama advances this agenda more in the spirit of FDR, who was far less forthcoming — and far more successful — than Wilson in achieving his ends).
This profound difference would provide enough of a contrast by itself. But the still-more striking contrast is between how the two men deal with what many would describe as the most challenging moral issues of their respective eras: how Lincoln dealt with slavery versus how Obama deals with abortion.
There are significant parallels between these two issues. Each is likely the political or moral issue about which Americans of their era have, or had, the most passionate feelings and the strongest opinions. Each was ultimately decided, at least for a while, by the Supreme Court — in favor of legalized slavery and legalized abortion. And each involves conflicting interpretations of fundamental natural rights — of liberty versus property in the case of slavery, of life versus liberty in the case of abortion.
In dealing with slavery, Lincoln demonstrated clarity in his speech, moderation in his actions, and a firm commitment to preserving the integrity of the Constitution regardless of his preferred policy outcomes. In dealing with abortion, Obama has demonstrated the opposite.
Both slavery and abortion ultimately reduce to competing claims over unalienable rights. No one can justly take the liberty or life of another if that other qualifies for the rights with which all of humanity is endowed. Thus, debates over slavery eventually became — as debates over abortion eventually become — debates over the humanity of the slave or the fetus. If the slave or the fetus are among those beings who, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, “are created equal” and “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” then their unalienable rights to life (in the case of abortion) and liberty (in the case of slavery) must be secured. If they are not, then a slave-master may be said to have a right to property in a slave, and a pregnant woman may be said to have a right to liberty in the form of abortion.
In speech, Lincoln did not equivocate on where he stood on these competing notions of rights. During his famous debates with Stephen Douglas, he said that “there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence. … [I]n the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas and the equal of every living man.” Across the debates and the years, Lincoln never wavered on this position.
Obama has not been nearly so clear. When, as a candidate, he was asked whether life begins at the moment of conception, he famously replied that the question was “above his pay grade.” Furthermore, his words have varied greatly depending upon his audience. When speaking at Messiah College, a small Christian school, he said, “What I know is that there is something extraordinarily powerful about potential life and that that has a moral weight to it that we take into consideration when we’re having these debates.” When speaking at Notre Dame, he spoke of the “moral and spiritual dimensions” of abortion and pledged to “work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions.” In marked contrast, when addressing Planned Parenthood last year, he said, “Thanks to all of you at Planned Parenthood for all the work you are doing for women … and for men who have enough sense to realize you are helping them.”