Barack Obama: Lincoln or Douglas?

Joseph Knippenberg

February 1, 2009

President Obama and his supporters have worked very hard to wrap the current occupant of the Oval Office in the mantle of his illustrious Illinois predecessor, Abraham Lincoln.

But after watching President Obama in office and reading his remarks earlier this week about his reasons for overturning the Bush Administration’s stem cell research policy, I’m wondering if his real Illinois predecessor isn’t the man Lincoln debated in 1858, Stephen A. Douglas.

When it came to slavery, the most vexed moral and political question of the age, Douglas was a great proponent of choice and a great servant of the alleged wishes of the majority. Let the people decide—state by state, if need be—and have done with it. In this way, we could take this most divisive political and moral issue off the table and come together as a nation. That was his prescription for healing our deep divisions in the 1850s.

President Obama’s argument about stem cell research owes something to Douglas’s majoritarian approach to moral questions. Here’s what he said when he announced his new policy:

Many thoughtful and decent people are conflicted about, or strongly oppose, this research. I understand their concerns, and we must respect their point of view.

But after much discussion, debate and reflection, the proper course has become clear. The majority of Americans—from across the political spectrum, and of all backgrounds and beliefs—have come to a consensus that we should pursue this research.

We have a faced a difficult moral question, but the majority has now spoken. It’s time to move on.

In saying this, President Obama sounds a lot more like Stephen Douglas than like Abraham Lincoln, who could be obdurate and recalcitrant about matters of high principle.

Similarly, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Dred Scott’s status as a slave, Lincoln didn’t simply bow to judicial authority, but rather insisted that the case was wrongly decided. When some months ago the pre-Proposition 8 California Supreme Court said that there was a right to same-sex marriage, then-candidate Barack Obama argued that we should accede to judicial authority, regardless of our own personal preferences. Once again, his statements and behavior tracked Stephen A. Douglas better than Abraham Lincoln.

Of course, one could say that Barack Obama has principles and honors them, defending them with the full array of rhetorical tools at his disposal. When he can plausibly claim majority support, he does. When he has to hide behind the judiciary, he will. He does, in other words, what any effective and principled political leader would do: you meet your supporters and opponents on the most favorable political ground.

But these rhetorical moves have two other interesting features. First of all, they are, and are meant to be, conversation stoppers. The people have spoken (though we might ask how) or the Court has spoken. It’s time to bow to the authority that has been invoked and act.

On one level this is fair enough. Barack Obama is leading a country, not a college seminar. He has to act, not just encourage and entertain seemingly endless debate.

But I find the second feature of these conversation stoppers more troubling, for much the same reason that Abraham Lincoln found Stephen A. Douglas’s combination of acquiescence in judicial authority and recurrence to popular sovereignty troubling. When we’re told to stop debating and move on with regard to a vexed moral question, we’re told either than action—any action—is more important than getting it morally right or we’re told that the moral dimension of the issue doesn’t really matter at all. Stopping the conversation in these ways has the effect, in other words, of deadening our moral sensibilities. That’s what Stephen A. Douglas sought to do regarding slavery and that’s what Barack Obama is trying to do with respect to a whole range of deeply important and very vexing moral questions, from stem cell research and same-sex marriage to abortion. President Obama professes to respect those with whom he disagrees, but in order to support the action he wants, he appeals to whatever conversation-stopping authority is available. Let’s not, he seems to say, keep looking at or for the higher law to which Abraham Lincoln would have appealed.

That move might, from the President’s point of view, produce desirable short-term political results, but its long-term effect is literally de-moralizing. This isn’t the kind of change I can believe in.

Joseph M. Knippenberg is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. He is Professor of Politics at Oglethorpe University.