Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

When history speaks: Lincoln's three lessons for an Obama second term

By Tom Foreman, CNN
November 13, 2012 -- Updated 1252 GMT (2052 HKT)
  • New "Lincoln" film offers opportunities, advice for Barack Obama
  • Obama is avid admirer of the 16th president
  • A professor offers three lessons for Obama from Lincoln

(CNN) -- Critics are already gushing over Steven Spielberg's new "Lincoln" as a potential Oscar contender. Much of the praise centers on how the film makes the larger-than-life president at once heroic and human.

By all accounts, it deftly explores both his personal and political wisdom through scenes like the one in which Daniel Day Lewis, who plays Honest Abe, cites ancient mathematical theory in an assessment of humanity: "It's a self-evident truth that things that are equal to the same thing are equal to each other."

But even as moviegoers line up for tickets, some in Washington may well wonder what one special fan of Lincoln might take away from a screening.

President Barack Obama is a self-professed, lifelong admirer of the 16th president, who is by many accounts the most popular and influential of all chief executives in American history.

Holding Democratic 'blue wall' was crucial for Obama victory

Shortly before taking office in 2009, the Obama family made an unannounced late night visit to the Lincoln Memorial and since, the 44th president has stopped by again. Mr. Obama took his oath on the same Bible Lincoln used for his inauguration in 1861; a small volume sheathed in stained red velvet with gilt edges. He has frequently been spotted reading about Lincoln and he's fond of quoting the rail-splitter in his speeches, most notably during the recent Democratic National Convention.

"I'm far more mindful of my own failings," he told the convention crowd, "knowing exactly what Lincoln meant when he said, 'I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go.'"

Some Lincolnophiles have since suggested he actually misquoted Lincoln in that instance, but the point remains: Obama is a big Lincoln fan.

So what advice might Lincoln have for Obama as he heads toward a second term? In the land of Lincoln, at Illinois Wesleyan University, Professor Robert Bray is one of the nation's leading Lincoln scholars.

He suggests that Lincoln Lesson One might be: Make your enemies into friends.

Bray notes that Lincoln had an enormous talent for turning around even his fiercest opponents. "He was able to keep his eye on the prize," Bray says, "which means he was able to disassociate himself from personal attacks." No matter how cruelly his foes savaged him, Lincoln repeatedly rose above the fray, using humor and warmth to disarm his enemies and refocus everyone on the agenda at hand.

Instances of his temper showing, Bray notes, were rare.

Opinion: Election a call for purple politics

Lincoln Lesson Two: Be firm, but play nice. Lincoln was no pushover. Despite his legendarily laconic style, Bray says Lincoln had a single-minded ability to steadily exert political pressure on others, inexorably pushing them toward the action he wanted, or rather he felt the nation needed. And yet, he did so in a way that left others feeling unthreatened. "He could talk without anger," Bray says. "He could talk without heat to his political opponents."

Lincoln Lesson Three: Take the long view. Lincoln clearly saw the future in a way that many of his contemporaries could not. He imagined not merely the end of slavery, but also the repercussions that would follow for freed African Americans, southern citizens, and northerners as well. He knew resolution might take many years, and yet he tried to point the politics of the day in the proper direction. "He believed firmly, I think, that if we put our heads to it and we put our wills to it, the American people could be that shining example of equality for the world," Bray says.

Bray is the first to say that there is so much more about Lincoln, noting the volumes of work about him.

At Ford's Theater, where Lincoln was assassinated, workers constructed a 34-foot tall tower of books to represent all the titles published about Lincoln; more than 15,000 in all, according to their count.

It is unlikely that Obama has read them all and it is not known when or if he'll see the new Lincoln movie, but undoubtedly, Abe still has plenty of lessons for our times ... honestly.

Part of complete coverage on
Get all the latest news at CNN's Election Center. There are race updates, a delegate counter and much more.
A black man is returning to the White House. Four years ago, it was a first, the breaking of a racial barrier. Tuesday night, it was history redux. And more.
The 2012 presidential election shattered spending records, further polarized a divided country and launched a thousand hashtags.
November 8, 2012 -- Updated 1841 GMT (0241 HKT)
Democratic and Republican congressional leaders continue to sharply disagree over the key issue of whether top tax rates should be raised to help resolve the looming crisis.
November 7, 2012 -- Updated 1924 GMT (0324 HKT)
In a historic turnaround, the ballot box is showing America's shifting attitudes about same-sex marriage.
Even though voters indicated to pollsters that their financial situation is the same or worse than it was four years ago, they put their trust in the president.
November 8, 2012 -- Updated 0919 GMT (1719 HKT)
The president faces a long and familiar set of challenges after riding a wave of support from moderates, women and minorities to victory.
November 7, 2012 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Republicans kept a lock on the U.S. House of Representatives, a crucial victory after the party failed to wrest away the presidency from Barack Obama and the Senate from the Democrats.
November 8, 2012 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Democrats will retain their control of the Senate after winning several closely contested races on Tuesday.