Lincoln or Buchanan?

Obama’s favorite president is Lincoln. But his over-intellectualizing is classic Buchanan.

Barack Obama is a reasonable man — to a fault. His surge in Afghanistan followed rounds of discussions, analysis and debate; but in the end, for all good reasons, he found himself held captive to the military mind. During the health care debates, he relied on reason and reasonableness, only to be stiffed by an unreasonable Congress. Last December, when the Bush tax cuts were about to expire, and he could have held the Republican anti-tax ideologues hostage to raising the debt ceiling, he settled for his Russian treaty and extension of unemployment benefits. We needn’t worry about the debt-ceiling issue, he told his staff — surely the Republicans wouldn’t let the nation default. That would BE unreasonable.

Barack Obama has acted out Reinhold Neibuhr’s “Children of Light” — people who cling to a naive faith in reason, a faith that underestimates the power of ego, self-interest and greed, resulting in a too-optimistic view of the human prospect and condition.

In contrast, consider Obama’s ideal president, Abraham Lincoln, who was much more realistic — no child of light was he. In his first inaugural address, March 1861 — seven states having already seceded — Lincoln opened by reassuring the Southerners that he would not work to end slavery in the South; then, he moved to the hard stuff. He would not support slavery in the Western territories, and he would oppose any attempts by any state to leave the Union. He stated that the union preceded the states (a novel concept then and now), and that was that.

Reason, Lincoln understood, had its limits if for no other reason than that people aren’t reasonable. Lincoln knew that he was dealing with human behavior, guided as it always is by ego, self-interest and greed — which make up the human condition, thus limiting the human prospect.   

James Buchanan, one of America’s lowest-regarded presidents, actually came to the office with much stronger credentials than did Lincoln, his successor. Also a lawyer, Buchanan had been a distinguished member of Congress and ambassador under two presidents, with his last post being in London. His apologists claim that he headed off the Civil War. He tried to do this through endless negotiations, through civil process, through accommodations. Through reason.

Then, during his lame-duck period, which back then stretched from November until March, Buchanan would only wring his hands as those seven unreasonable Southern states declared their independence from the Union. He had only put off the inevitable for his successor to deal with.

Consider the comparison to Obama’s recent approach to the debt ceiling crisis. First, Obama didn’t see it coming. He was asked at his December 2010 press briefing if, by not insisting that the debt limit be raised, he had given Republicans considerable leverage to demand deeper cuts than he would want to support. Obama dismissed the concern. After all, threatening the credit of the United States would not be reasonable. He “would take John Boehner at his word” when the new speaker stated that the default would be devastating.

Buchanan deplored secession, but he could not find any Constitutional grant of authority that would allow him to prevent it; Obama, likewise, refused even to threaten invoking the 14th amendment, which guarantees that the United States always pays its bills. Apparently his lawyers had told him the case wouldn’t be all that strong. Not a strong enough case? Lincoln stated that he might simply ignore the Supreme Court if that’s what it would take to save the union. Would not global economic devastation amount to pretty much the same kind of catastrophe?

Lincoln was an effective “outcomes” president. Buchanan was perhaps our poster-boy “process” president. It was Machiavelli who stated that, in the end, only outcomes matter.

John Podesta, formerly Bill Clinton’s Chief of Staff and later to head up Obama’s transition team, marveled at the new president’s ability to work his way through problems intellectually. But he also expressed concerned that Obama might over-intellectualize — a trait that could become the young president’s “Achilles’ heel,” especially if the intellectual drill always assumes that reason will prevail.

Machiavelli would agree — but so too would another man who has influenced Obama’s life. Saul Alinsky would advise his disciple to reread Rules for Radicals. Change means movement, movement means friction, friction means conflict.

Later, even as the extortion game raged, Obama continued to insist that reason would win out. Then, when the final vote was taken and the president’s revenue objectives had been ignored, he weakly thanked the American public for its patience and praised all who took part in the deal-cutting, including the extortionists. Then came the bromides about “winning the future.”

The takeaway for President Obama? Outcome and action make for strong presidents. Reason and passivity make for failed presidents. The former model depends on an understanding that the world is full of the Children of Darkness; the latter naively cling to reason alone.

I’m not saying that he must transform himself, but it’s one thing to incorporate reason; it is another to allow it to turn human problems into academic exercises in which wallowing in reason is viewed as a virtue.

Nor does he need to abandon entirely his preferred Children of Light worldview for the dark world of a Richard Nixon, who infamously said, “Grab them by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow."

But he might consider at least moving in that direction. That is, if he doesn’t want to be remembered as another James Buchanan.

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About The Author

Robert Herold

Robert Herold is a retired professor of public administration and political science at both Eastern Washington University and Gonzaga University. Robert Herold's collection of Inlander columns dating back to 1995, Robert's Rules, is available at Auntie's.