The movie “Lincoln” opened in theaters across the country and has rekindled America’s interest in our 16th president. In these current difficult times we need to remember and learn from Abraham Lincoln. He changed our understanding of the meaning of the words “the United States of America,” and rearranged our view of both our government and society. He accomplished those transitions because he was able to truly lead during our most perilous time.
Lincoln arrived at the White House on March 4, 1861, was greeted by the secession of seven states in the South, followed by the southern declaration of Confederacy. Within one month, six more states seceded from the Union. Civil War had begun and would cost the nation 750,000 deaths. Lincoln righted and realigned the ship of state and sailed into safe harbor.
During the ensuing century and a half, only two presidents have come to office with both the challenges and opportunities that faced Lincoln: Franklin Roosevelt and Barack Obama. As with Lincoln, both of these presidents faced fierce national storms of war and joblessness.
Roosevelt, an admirer of Lincoln, inherited both a national economic collapse and an approaching world war. FDR launched a series of policy experimentation unknown in America, found a successful formula and changed the nation.
The mess that was dumped into Obama’s lap in 2009 was of crisis proportions. Lincoln and Roosevelt set goals, rallied the public, persuaded the opposition in Congress and in so doing not only solved the great problems but also dramatically reinvented this country. Even with but one term remaining, Obama still has that opportunity. Under a Democratic and supportive Congress, Obama, during his first two years, moved quickly and successfully to prevent the pending catastrophic financial collapse. He fought for and won reform of the nation’s then badly broken healthcare system. But before the president’s third year Republicans on the far right won huge majorities in the U.S. House. Obama stalled and has remained stalled.
His State of the Union speech is approaching. Now is the time for this president to ascend to greatness, to follow Lincoln, the first Republican, and Roosevelt, the greatest Democrat, by accepting and explaining to the people the enormous perils of our age and convince us to assist him in meeting these challenges.
In short, for Obama to make change more than his campaign slogan, he must find ways to turn it into reality. Obama needs to demonstrate determination on both taxes and expenditures, act boldly to get us out of war in the Middle East, re-energize our once great industrial base, become realistic about how to engage with and convince members of Congress. He must transform his grand ability to make words soar into the more complex process of also using them to explain.
The president still has the opportunity – no, the obligation –to not only repair the nation’s serious problems, but to remake America – as did Lincoln and Roosevelt.
Pat Williams served nine terms as a U.S. Representative from Montana. After his retirement, he returned to Montana and taught at the University of Montana.
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