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MICHAEL GERSON: Obama fails the Lincoln test – The Washington Post

September 14, 2011

Obama fails the Lincoln test

By Michael Gerson, Published: September 12

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, since 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.”

via Obama fails the Lincoln test – The Washington Post.

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