Monday, February 8, 2010

Leadership: Lincoln vs Obama

The pending (and long overdue) changes in our 'don't ask don't tell' policy gave BobOnARoll an opportunity for reflection on presidential leadership and styles of our current prez vs. my own favorite, A. Lincoln, whose birthday we commemorate this week.

LGBT leaders have been vocal critics of Obama's reluctance to get out front of public opinion on gay marriage, including recognition of marriage at the federal level, and equal treatment in the military. The criticism has been well-founded. After a while, the 'trust us, our hearts are in the right place' rhetoric loses meaning without action. For example, the discharge of gay men and lesbians from the military for violations of 'don't ask' could have been halted in the first month of the administration, leaving the bigger issue for later.

Yet, there is something to be said for not getting too far ahead of public opinion. Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, as depicted in the wonderful Doris Kearns Goodwin book I read last year, was not a case study of how presidents change history by standing up for what's right in the face of public opinion that holds otherwise. In fact, Lincoln's great political skills derived from his ability to communicate, massage, and signal to the public and the political and economic elites the nature of the changes that needed to come, and his uncanny sense of timing---knowing, intuitively, when the people were prepared to go along with big policy changes.

The proclamation itself did not abolish slavery everywhere in the U.S.---and, despite his deeply held beliefs about the immoral nature of slavery, Lincoln did not issue the edict until the beginning of his third year in office, well into the Civil War years. The Goodwin book suggests that the Proclamation was a well-timed product of the necessities of demoralizing the enemy and recruiting much-needed black manpower into the armed forces, in addition to expressing a moral imperative.

I posted ( the view that Obama's decision to proceed with the wider war in Afghanistan was the opportune moment to declare that we needed all hands on deck, and as a matter of both practicality and decency, we needed a new policy. That would have been a Lincolnesque approach to the challenge. Instead, these folks dithered until just last week. Better late than never, I suppose.

Obama? He's no A. Lincoln. Let's just hope he's not another J. Carter.

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