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.”
When speaking to anti-abortion crowds or to more general audiences, Obama’s rhetoric is less reminiscent of Lincoln’s and more reminiscent of Lincoln’s adversary, Douglas, who claimed an agnostic position on slavery’s morality and embraced the pro-choice position of allowing the people to choose whether or not to legalize slavery in their own state or territory. When speaking to pro-abortion crowds, his rhetoric is no longer agnostic but is the rhetoric of the true believer.
Where Lincoln sought to clarify, Obama seeks to obscure; where Lincoln educated, Obama has pandered, adjusting his message to his audience. The two men’s rhetoric seems to have very different aims.
In action, Lincoln sought not the immediate abolition of slavery but congressional action to prevent slavery’s expansion into the territories or the new states, along with the public recognition of that practice as wrong — a recognition that would likely lead toward slavery’s gradual elimination. Although as he would later put it in his second inaugural, “the war came,” he didn’t take action to end slavery in the South (prior to the war) because he didn’t wish to invite that violent and terrible result. He adhered to his principles with steadfast consistency, but he applied them with prudence and judiciousness.
Obama, on the other hand, has adopted many policies on the relatively extreme edge of the abortion debate. He has reinstituted the use of U.S. foreign aid to fund overseas abortions and has promised to sign the “Freedom of Choice Act” should it make it to his desk. As a state senator in Illinois, he voted against the Infants Born Alive Act, which sought to give legal protection to those who survive abortions and are delivered alive. As a candidate, he was supportive of partial-birth abortion, criticizing the Gonzalez v. Carhart decision that upheld laws prohibiting that practice. If Obama’s rhetoric often recalls that of Douglas, his policies more easily recall the hard-line pro-slavery stance of John C. Calhoun.
What helped moderate Lincoln’s policies was his deep respect for the integrity of the law and the Constitution. Lincoln insisted on having his cake and eating it too: he sought to stop the spread of slavery, but he insisted that the proper legal and constitutional forms be observed throughout that effort. The legal means were even more important to him than the policy ends.
Thus, he broke with the abolitionists who claimed that the Constitution required an anti-slavery policy, when he knew it didn’t. When the Supreme Court used that same sword in reverse, claiming in Dred Scott v. Sandford that the Constitution required a pro-slavery policy, he criticized the decision as not being true to the Constitution (which required neither policy) and argued that the people should work to overturn it in subsequent cases. But he nevertheless insisted that that decision, which he held to be erroneous, be respected as law. Lincoln refused to use the Constitution as a tool to promote his own policy agenda. He was not a “living constitutionalist”; he believed in the fixed rule of law, not the arbitrary rule of man. He regarded the integrity of legal forms as more important than any single issue, even an issue on the magnitude of slavery.
In this vein, Obama stands again as Lincoln’s opposite. Roe v. Wade, the case in which the Supreme Court claimed that the Constitution requires a pro-abortion policy, has arguably now surpassed Dred Scott (which was soon overturned by the war and subsequent amendments) and all others as the most controversial case in U.S. history. Like Dred Scott, it was a rather naked policy-based ruling with very little textual support. As in Dred Scott, the Court claimed that the constitutional guarantee of “due process of law” requires not only that the appropriate legal process be followed, but that such processes achieve the result that the Court desires — a very different thing. Whatever one thinks of them morally, the two cases are strikingly similar legally. Despite this, Obama has made it clear that he would not appoint a justice to the Supreme Court who would not uphold Roe if the case were to be challenged on appeal.
While Lincoln condemned courts that impose rulings that the Constitution doesn’t require — whether he agreed morally with those rulings or not — Obama insists that justices adopt this approach. Here, Obama sounds more like the author of Dred Scott, Chief Justice Roger Taney, than like Lincoln himself.
In speech, action, and deference to the Constitution and laws, the contrast between Lincoln on slavery and Obama on abortion could hardly be plainer. While Lincoln was clear in speech, moderate in action, and put the Constitution above his most cherished policy goals, Obama has been obfuscatory in speech, immoderate in action, and has put his personal policy goals above the Constitution — including letting those goals strongly influence whom to nominate to the Supreme Court.
To merit the comparisons to Lincoln that he and his partisans promote, Obama needs to start speaking, acting, and thinking like Lincoln — instead of speaking, acting, and thinking more like Lincoln’s adversaries.