Obama Calling Lincoln: History as the Great Legitimizer

President Barack Obama meets "President Abe Lincoln" during a 2012 campaign rally in Iowa.

President Barack Obama meets a fellow prairie stater, “President Abe Lincoln,” during a 2012 campaign rally in Iowa.

Over the summer, President Barack Obama made a series of speeches designed to drum up public and private support for better infrastructure investment as part of his broader long-term economic recovery plan. This speeches were mostly political, insofar as no such plan has any chance of squeezing through the fatalistic lunatic factory that is the current Republican controlled Congress. The president knows this, of course, but his speeches gave him the chance to do what all politicians do during their time in office: invoke history to legitimize the present…and the future.

At a  late July speech in Jacksonville, Florida, Obama resorted to some campaign-style rhetoric to blast Republican obstructionism on infrastructure spending. In doing so, the former little known lawyer and state politician from Illinois who became president invoked a previous little known lawyer and state politician from Illinois who became president:

The first Republican President is a guy from my home state.  He was a pretty good President, named Abraham Lincoln.  (Laughter.) He had a whole lot of things to worry about — had a Civil War, probably the biggest crisis that this country ever experienced.  And yet, in the middle of that, he was still thinking about how do we build that Transcontinental Railroad?  How are we going to widen our canals and our ports so that we can move products all around the country and eventually the world?  How do we invest in land-grant colleges so that our workers are now skilled and can get those new jobs?  We’re going to invest in the National Science Foundation to make sure that we stay ahead of everybody else when it comes to technology.

He made those investments, the first Republican President.  He didn’t say, well, that’s not the job of government to help do that.  He wouldn’t have understood that kind of philosophy, because he understood there are some things we can only do together.  And rebuilding our infrastructure is one of them.

Obama has frequently used this tactic of highlighting his opposition’s past positions, which they now conveniently oppose, to expose political hypocrisy. It makes for great speechifying, given that the contemporary Republican Party is populated by anarchist trolls who would burn Dwight Eisenhower at the stake for communist sorcery and accuse Abraham Lincoln of ghost-writing for Friedrich Engels. But if infrastructure investment has no chance of getting through the Republican Congress, and the president most certainly knows this, why bother with the speechifying? Because it gives him the chance to legitimize his proposals and legacy via historical precedent.

For those out there who don’t think that history matters, consider Obama’s invoking of Lincoln to show why you are just so wrong. And he doesn’t just call up Old Abe: Obama has also invoked the Gipper, past master of the ‘stash and monocle, Teddy Roosevelt, arch Simpsons mayor parody source, JFK, and interstate highway aficionado, Dwight Eisenhower. Nor is Obama unique in referencing the legacy of historical figures. Ronald Reagan famously invoked 17th century Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop, Bill Clinton recently honored the spirit of Martin Luther King, and George W. Bush liked to reference permanent president of the whole spiritual universe, Jesus Christ, a guy who, like Bush, also got power from his dad.

So why do politicians invoke historical figures? They do it because humans value historical provenance. When something is old, it becomes more valuable, and this applies as much to political and cultural legacies as it does to antiques and religions (with age, for example, religions like Catholicism and Mormonism went from being fringe cults to respected world powers). History really does matter. Think about Abraham Lincoln’s iconic historical role in American culture: of course Obama wants to associate himself with that legacy. The same is true for every other American politician who has referenced respected figures from the past to boost their current agenda. Whether we always admit it or not, history matters to us. To quote Dr. Emmett L. Brown, history helps us explain “where we’ve been, where we’re going. The pitfalls and the possibilities. The perils and the promise. Perhaps even an answer to that universal question: why?”* Without an observance of history, we can’t begin to know any of that important stuff.

When something is old; when something has a history that a large number of people respect and admire, it becomes inherently more valuable. Remember this the next time your smarmy friend tells you that history only constitutes talking about what a bunch of dead guys did on a battlefield. Though it’s also that too. And battlefields are interesting, dammit!

*  See Back to the Future, Part II (1989).

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