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Nancy Koehn
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Nancy Koehn

Nancy F. Koehn is a historian at the Harvard Business School and author, most recently, of The Story of American Business: From the Pages of the New York Times.

Losing sight of Lincoln: A mid-course resurrection to save Obama's presidency

Remember, back in 2008, when everyone compared Barack Obama to Abraham Lincoln? After he was elected president, Obama himself talked about what he was learning from the 16th president. Fast forward to today: no one is talking about those parallels. Only the most foolish among us would put Obama anywhere near the rarefied stratosphere reserved for our most revered leader.

Although Obama's presidency has lost so much momentum and credibility, we forget that Lincoln's path as president was also marked by moments of great failure and collective doubt about his abilities to lead. In mid 1862, for example, and again in the summer of 1864, Lincoln's presidency was essentially given up for lost. In both instances, the tide of circumstances, including the Union war effort and his own standing in the Republican Party, ran strongly--seemingly irrevocably--against him. The fate of the country hung in the balance. There is much for Obama to learn from how Lincoln navigated those deep dark canyons if our 44th president is to save his presidency, save the country and help America hold the center of a very turbulent world order.
To begin to understand the current parallels between Lincoln and Obama, we need to remember that Lincoln only found his leadership backbone 15 months into his presidency. Until that time, Lincoln was too uncertain of himself to act outside the counsel and frame of the established elite Union generals, congressmen and his often-contentious Cabinet.

He found his own core strength as a leader only after he had exhausted every alternative within the traditional order. Only then, in a place of self-doubt and some desperation, did Lincoln discover the larger frame for the war and his purpose leading it: to save the Union. This frame became the foundation on which all the rest of his actions rested, including the Emancipation Proclamation, his consistent refusal to accept a brokered peace, his steadfast support of Ulysses Grant, initiatives that would become the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, and the overall governance of the war. Most important, this became the frame with which Lincoln presented the war and its significance to the American people, allowing them to see their parts (and stakes) in the larger moment.

As the famed Gettysburg Address shows us, for Lincoln framing these stakes meant painting the big picture of the Civil War, one that was ever changing and inherently dynamic. Beyond just providing a battle-by-battle explanation, he clarified the conflict's significance and articulated the tradeoffs of different actions within the context of the war's overriding purpose. Finally, he communicated what the war meant not only for today but, as he once said, "for a vast future" as well.

Obama has no time to waste. He must begin framing the stakes of this moment for Americans and for the rest of the world. He has to lay out the momentous issues--from the ticking time bombs of the global environment and the worldwide financial system to the ethos of disillusionment hanging over the United States. And he needs to outline America's central mission in addressing these. He's going to have to bring home time and again both the tradeoffs involved in tackling our problems effectively and the animating values at the heart of the American experiment. We have seen him do this at least once--in a 2008 speech on race. We need to see much more.

Today, there is a barrage of criticisms being leveled at Obama about his aloofness, apparent lack of spirited engagement and the confusing teeter-tottering way he has for putting forth his ideas. Yet behind all these judgments is the public's desire to see Obama find his core strength (his most important resources as president) and, finally, his core mission. Recall last year's anger and fear toward healthcare reform. At the root of the issue was that people did not understand Obama's core mission. They are similarly confused now about the president's new position on taxes, budget reform, job creation and the direction in which he wants to take the country.

Like Lincoln, Obama must learn to lead from the inside out. He must find his animating purpose, the inner strength he possesses to serve this mission, and the resources he has--outside the realm of political and economic elites--to accomplish the overriding objective of his presidency.

He also must learn, again by defining his leadership outside the confines of these traditional elites, that he is not alone. One of Lincoln's greatest assets was his respect for--and reliance on--direct access to the people he called, "his fellow citizens." Throughout his presidency, Lincoln reached out to ordinary Americans through great speeches, a steady stream of letters to newspaper editors and to individual citizens, visits to troops, and, perhaps most importantly, in hundreds of meetings with the people who came to see him. Virtually every weekday between 1861 and 1865, ministers, mothers, barrel makers, doctors and others would wait in long lines to talk to Lincoln. His secretaries constantly tried to curtail these meetings, but the president insisted on these "public opinion baths." He respected his fellow citizens and knew these discussions would offer unmediated access to public sentiment, which could help him clarify his own evolving frame on the war's significance.

If Obama is to save his presidency and reestablish the animating purpose of "government of the people, by the people and for the people," he must establish direct, ongoing communication with ordinary Americans. This means he has to break out of the Beltway (or Manhattan) bubble and talk to all people in a serious, focused, ongoing way. The issues facing the country and the larger world are simply too vast and too grave for an appearance on Jon Stewart or continuous Twitter feeds. Obama needs his own regular fireside chats or monthly television conversation with Americans. Nothing less will do if he is to develop the base of authority and source of momentum needed to deal with the tough choices facing our polity.

As Obama nears the halfway mark in his presidency and faces a new shift in power in Congress, it's time for him to seize this leadership backbone and lift the United States from what is now an unacceptable decline. Channeling lessons from Lincoln's presidency, Obama must lead by establishing balance in the midst of financial, environmental and military chaos. The lessons are there for the taking, and they are as relevant today as they were 145 years ago.


Related content:
Lincoln's wartime leadership tools

By Nancy Koehn

 |  December 8, 2010; 1:04 PM ET
Category:  Accomplishing Goals , Crisis leadership , Economic crisis , Ethics , Government leadership , Leadership personalities , Making mistakes , Managing Crises , Political leadership , Presidential leadership , Wartime Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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[This is the last of three Comments which were written as one whole. Please start 3 entries down and read them up to get the correct flow. This was necessary because of the character limits set.]


Some look at Obama from the right, and nothing he does is worthwhile. There is little to be learned from their criticism. Others who criticize him may be overly sensitive to their own selfhood and so feel personally any appearance that their transferential object is not ‘a man’ fighting for the good as they would like to see themselves doing. Other criticizers are too 'in the moment', and lack a long-term perspective. They can't see the distant vision, nor see how steps today may be marching in place until the right moment to strike, or how temporary piecemeal steps may eventually lead to the greater goal. We shall see. If we can see.

Posted by: RichardMargolies | December 17, 2010 3:25 PM
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[continued from above]...what is happening with people. I do agree, however, that Obama has relied infrequently and casually on an occasional Tweet or TV appearance on John Stuart, rather than regular, persistent arguing for his points and his vision. He needs to take on the logic of his opponents and refute their language and framing of discourse. Democrats generally are surprisingly mute to this, as if they don’t know how to respond. 'Death panels'; 'government take over of healthcare', 'Obamacare', 'death tax', etc. He should take this on.

He could also draw powerful historical examples to show how right wing his opponents are: compare Lincoln, T. Roosevelt, and Eisenhower to the right wingers. Why has the Republican Party given up its own intellectual heritage?

Why doesn't Obama show the fighting trait more? Lincoln's father was crude and disrespectful toward his son, while Barack's father was distant, but did not abuse him. Obama longed for his father, hanging lovingly on his hand as a 10 year old. Obama’s father was also an educated man, admired in Kenya, though he wasted his potential at the end of his life. Obama has traveled to Kenya to honor his father several times, Lincoln did not pay for or attend his father's funeral. Lincoln grew up in a hard, survival-challenged world where people died young, and he had to fight to protect himself. Barack grew up in more benign, though not cushy, circumstances. Lincoln's mother and step-mother were loving but uneducated and living in dire rural circumstances. Obama's mother was educated, an intellectual, and lived in cities and different cultures around the world. While loving, Obama's mother also demanded that he study and work hard, when he often did not. Barack had older men around him who mentored him when he was still rather young, like his mother's second husband, his basketball coach, his teachers. It wasn't until later in his life, perhaps in his 20s that Abraham was able to form those kinds of male bonds. Barack never had to fight hand-to-hand as Abraham did as a young man against a local gang leader. He later made the bully a friend and supporter.

Barack was educated at good schools, and perhaps had scholarships. After college he worked for a year with a Wall Street firm (though it was located in mid-town). Lincoln was self-educated, didn't need his mother to motivate him to study, never worked for a corporation as an employee, though he defended corporations later in his law practice. Obama did not really practice law, but Lincoln was a working attorney, on his own much of the time when working (though he had a partner). He was an attorney for more years than he spent as a politician. As an attorney he was always trying to get the parties to resolve their differences, to work it out, to avoid litigation. Lincoln did not want to litigate, though if he had to he would fight in court.

[continued below]....

Posted by: RichardMargolies | December 17, 2010 3:19 PM
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Ms. Koehn is more erudite than many Obama analysts, though like many of them she still ends up at the manhood issue. A friend said "the Republicans have him by the bXXXs", she says he needs "leadership backbone", or her concept of "core strength". This is not a personality analysis. She is criticizing a supposedly missing trait, which could also be called fight, will, or force of drive. But she misses that both Lincoln and Obama are strategic visionaries (a personality type). A person with this type of personality is acutely aware of context and timing of aggressive actions forward. Some prize fighters go powering into the ring swinging at every opportunity, trying to land a knockout punch early, punch after punch. These fighters are usually defeated by the opponent who preserves his strength, bounces around, and waits for the right time to connect with the target. (I am not referring to the current prize fighter known as 'Pacman' from the Phillipines who is a persistent puncher, but does it in a different manner, and prevails even against larger opponents with longer arms. He has a strategy in his punches.)

She also glosses over Lincoln's dogged pursuit of compromise positions. While he always thought slavery was wrong, he also was a long advocate for colonization (sending slaves back to Africa). Or earlier during his rather lackluster years as a House member around 1844, his attempt to eliminate slavery from DC by agreeing to return escaped slaves (not resident in DC) to their masters in VA and other slave states. Lincoln was a compromiser until the moment was right, until real opportunity for advance was possible. He was tolerant and long-suffering when the time was not opportune. But he never took his eyes off of where he was heading, even during times when he hadn't fully worked out precisely where that was, or the path to get there.

Ms. Koehn doesn't even mention Lincoln's economic vision. As he himself often did not mention it. She talks about his social-political vision in the Gettysburg Address as if that part of his view of the future of our country was all he was talking about. I don't know how often or to whom he argued as President for a new industrial economy based on free labor, although I do know of one campaign appearance in MA during his first run for the presidency when he spoke about the importance of workers being free to form unions.

Ms. Koehn makes a good point that Obama has not put enough effort and time into communicating his vision, or arguing for the reason for it, or for the logic of how his accomplishments contribute to that vision. However, she emphasizes too much Lincoln's immersion with the American people, his "public opinion baths". She misses the context here. That was Lincoln's only direct way of experiencing the people. Today through TV, internet, telephone, surveys, and meetings in people's backyards, Obama can more quickly get an understanding....[continued below]

Posted by: RichardMargolies | December 17, 2010 3:15 PM
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Lincoln was denounced for not taking the abolitionist position which was moral and right. However, he assessed the strategic costs of losing the border states, and likely then the war. He looked at the larger context and when the moment was right he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. That not only did in fact what the abolitionists advocated as a position, it also had military benefits. He also saw slavery as wrong, but unlike the abolitionists he had a larger vision of transforming our country toward a modern economy based on free labor and equality. This ideal future would have been unlikely had he lost the war to the slave-based South.

Obama, like Lincoln, is a strategic visionary. He has, unlike former Democratic presidents, delivered a major step toward creating a modern healthcare system. He has gotten passage of major financial controls on a run-amok Wall Street, a new citizens' financial products protection agency, continued phased withdrawal from a tremendously-resource-sapping Iraq War, saved the capital market and the American car industry from disaster, funded new investments in clean energy innovation bringing together government, universities, and industry, among many other advances toward the new economy we must create.

What have the republicans contributed? This is all grist for discussion in 2012, the next campaign for the future of our country. Many expected Lincoln to be defeated in 1864, as he himself thought. However, the American people in the midst of our bloodiest struggle with ourself, wanted Lincoln to continue with his vision, and kept him in office.

Posted by: RichardMargolies | December 17, 2010 10:09 AM
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Obama's problem is that he possesses no leadership qualities. This economic debacle is the worst since the Great Depression. The country needed a real leader like FDR. Instead, we got an empty suit. Hillary Clinton was right when she said that Obama did not have the experience to be president. I didn't vote for Obama in 2008. I will not be voting for him in 2012. He only reinforces my opinion that he is unsuited for the presidency.

Posted by: mmm1110 | December 11, 2010 10:21 PM
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Suppose Lincoln had "compromised" with his opponents after Bull Run, a genuine setback, a shellacking?
It's not fair -- to Obama or Lincoln -- to imagine that their challenges compare at all. The economy's in bad shape but that is hardly in the same hemisphere with the tearing apart of the nation, literally, over slavery, a civil war costing hundreds of thousands of lives and immeasurable pain. Hopefully, no president will ever be so tested again.
The fairer, but still a reach, comparison was to the Depression's FDR. Now it looks like it might be Jimmy Carter.

Posted by: denishorgan | December 9, 2010 11:20 AM
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Of course the comparison is still valid. Lincoln floundered through his entire presidency spending money like water with nothing to show for it, too.

Posted by: remant | December 9, 2010 10:18 AM
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This is crazy. The Left has lost its desire to accomplish anything. It would rather have the sick be denied health insurance (or be dropped from their health plan when sick) than to have comprehensive health legislation.

One thing I know: unemployment benefits have run out for too many people. It's very easy to sit in an office at work and whine about how Obama didn't battle. It's different to actually need the benefits. A lot of people need the benefits and don't want the moment wasted. Obama delivered a short-term benefit for a lot of people.

Let's hope Reid can now get the votes to dump DADT.

Posted by: teoandchive1 | December 8, 2010 4:42 PM
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Lincoln practiced Law. At a time when injustice could always turn violent if unresolved, Lincoln correctly saw the Civil War for what it was.

Obama is a Lawyer. Halliburton moves to Abu Dhabi, Bernie Madoff in the pen, Goldman Sachs sells Greece down the river - all in a day's work.

There is an insurmountable difference in early education between the two.

Posted by: gannon_dick | December 8, 2010 4:41 PM
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Lincoln never sold out his party's principles to the other side. Obama did. Lincoln faced intense opposition from Democrats who wanted to sue for peace. Lincoln didn't meet them mid-way and negotiate. He stood up for his principles and fought them. Obama didn't do that.
Lincoln never caved under the opposition. Obama did. Not once, but twice, Obama turned his back on his party's base, once by rejecting the public option on health care, and the other just this week as he embraced proposals that will drain the Social Security trust fund and open Social Security savings to be used for other purposes.
Lincoln never blamed his predecessor Buchanan for gutless inaction that led to the Civil War. Obama has never stopped blaming George Bush for the problems he faces.
Lincoln was bold in the face of danger, and took risks, eventually running through a series of generals until hitting on Ulysses Grant, who turned the tide. Obama is indecisive and too intellectual, studying problems to death for months while troops in Afghanistan and Iraq were endangered.
There is absolutely no comparison between Lincoln and Obama, and I feel insulted to see it even suggested.

Posted by: edwardallen54 | December 8, 2010 4:16 PM
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Ms. Koehn I did not get the point of this article unless your intent was to beef up the Obama platform (or lack of).


Obama has no creditability and he should not stand in the shadow of Lincoln's statue, much less be compared to him.


No one that runs America & it people down the way he likes to do shows he is "NO LINCLIN", also he can't resist calling the people of America names, that also shows that he is "NO LINCOLN"

I'm sorry to say but you article has no value.

Posted by: wildfire1946 | December 8, 2010 4:08 PM
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Hopey Dopey is not leader. His name and the word leader should not be used in the same sentence. What's the point of this article?

Posted by: theBozyn | December 8, 2010 3:57 PM
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Obama is not Lincoln, FDR, Truman, or LBJ. They were bold and decisive.
Great Presidents LEAD.

Posted by: jnik | December 8, 2010 3:47 PM
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How uneducated do you have to be to write this tripe. Lincoln was dealing with the slavery issue (Emancipation Proclamation) and the US CIVIL WAR.....

Obama is facing his own ignorance and lack of experience. NOT EVEN A BLIP ON THE RADAR WITH RESPECT TO LINCOLN…..

Of course this more than likely won’t make the tread because like the terrorists religious zealots usually try and silence their detractors. .

Posted by: askgees | December 8, 2010 2:43 PM
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PRESIDENT OBAMA IS NO MR. LINCOLN

With all respects to the authors of this article, but, trying to make a comparison of President Obama to President Lincoln is a little absurb and disingenious. There are obvious and stark differences between Lincoln and Obama.

LINCOLN TOOK ON RACE/SLAVERY ISSUE HEAD ON

President Lincoln was unapologetic when it came to his disdain for slavery. Obama runs from the issue of race. We have not heard from President Obama in any significant way on leading a discussion of racial relations in America. Lincoln welcomed a debate on the issue and led the way in wanting to provide a pathway for full citizenship to newly emancipated slaves. When have we heard from the President on the issue of all races and religions in America coming together for the common good?

LINCOLN EXPEMPLIFIED TRUE LEADERSHIP DURING A TIME OF UNCERTAINTY

Lincoln's resolve was to PRESERVE THE UNION and fulfill the promise of the US COnstitution --"All Men Are Created Equal and They Are Endowed By Their Creator With Certain Unalienable Rights." President Obama has been often at times indecisive and impatience when the push comes to shove. The recent "Let's Make A Deal" with the Republicans is a clear example -- instead of holding out and consulting with the Democratic leadership on the BEST strategy in dealing with the task at hand -- he panic and gave in too early. The results: We now have added $190-$200 billion more to the $3 trillion deficit, with no way to pay for billions the rich will walk away with.

LINCOLN WAS ABLE TO READ PEOPLE VERY WELL AND UNDERSTAND THEIR TRUE MOTIVES

Linclon was able to analyze quickly and size up his opponents and their intentions with ease and tactfulness. Obama failed to see the hidden dangers of giving in too quickly to a deal that will have serious repercussions for the country's short-term and long-term fiscal health. Totally irresponsible to campaign on NO TAX CUTS FOR THE RICH -- BUT LATER AGREE TO TAX CUTS FOR THE RICH. President Obama has lost his credibility on this issue and doesn't even realize it.

So, to make President Obama like a Lincoln is a little over-the-top. President Obama Ain't No Lincoln.

Posted by: djoh1226 | December 8, 2010 2:35 PM
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As a lover of Lincoln and the Civil War period, I am perplexed at any comparison between the two. Lincoln inherited disunion and an eventual Civil War; Obama inherited an economic downturn. Lincoln assumed the responsibilities of his office and brought the war to a conclusion. Obama simply blamed his successor, and his critics, and the media, and the American people. No comparison here.

Posted by: CubsFan | December 8, 2010 2:28 PM
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Obama's presidency isn't failing because Obama wants it to fail.

Obama cannot seize leadership of the country because he is not a leader.

This void in leadership by him causes all the daily speculation about what he could do to save his presidency.

It is not about what he should or should not do. It is about his experience and abilities. That is why he is failing.

Posted by: RandyM1 | December 8, 2010 2:18 PM
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Thank God that Lincoln only wanted to free the slaves, not enslave the free. It is an affront to Lincoln to compare anything Obama does with anything that Lincoln did. Although Lincoln's party (the Republicans) had a problem with the way he effected the war, they didn't have a problem with its results. There was a reason why the Republicans could force through change after the war...the Democrat leaders all left to be with the south. The party that Obama champions today was the champion of slavery in the past. There simply is no comparison and to do so is a continuing attempt to give this president attributes he simply does not have.

Posted by: wantingbalance | December 8, 2010 2:07 PM
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blah blah blah. lincoln cared about the country, not his presidency. get rid of the rest of the freaking dems in 2012.

Posted by: 12thgenamerican | December 8, 2010 2:00 PM
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