No, Lincoln wouldn’t have ‘fixed our politics’ in the Internet age

Lincoln and Roosevelt didn't bridge political battles. They won them.

Feb 29, 2020, 1:05 pm*

Internet Culture

Dan Friedman 

Dan Friedman

The White House/YouTube

President Barack Obama completed a sort of social media tour this week promoting his final State of the Union speech.

Obama fielded questions from what the White House dubbed “YouTube Creators” in a segment aired online Friday afternoon. On Thursday, he conducted an #AskPOTUS chat on Twitter. The speech itself was promoted on Snapchat, posted early on Medium and live-streamed on WhiteHouse.gov.

The White House used those venues to deliver a message of American unity to citizens divided into their own corners of what Obama called a “splintered” media environment.

“We’re all in this together,” he said in one of several brief YouTube interviews, summarizing the theme linking his famous 2004 Democratic National Convention speech with his address Tuesday.

But here we are in 2016, as Obama prepares to leave office, and the tension is still there.

 “We’ve got certain talk radio habits creeping into politics. It’s a lot like the comments section, or trolling, where people just feel like they can vent without really thinking about what they say ahead of time.”  — President Barack Obama

Obama himself suggested that he and other Washington lawmakers have not succeeded in using a fractured media to reach and unite voters. Instead it seems that fiercely divided Americans and the self-selected cocoons of the like-minded are further fragmenting Washington.

“We’ve got certain talk radio habits creeping into politics,” the president said on YouTube. “It’s a lot like the comments section, or trolling, where people just feel like they can vent without really thinking about what they say ahead of time.”

Obama acknowledged the failure to deliver on his effort to overcome this obstacle during his State of the Union speech on Tuesday.

“It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency—that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better,” he said.

The president may not have fully contemplated that it may be impossible, not just hard, to win elections and policy fights in a partisan environment while simultaneously trying to transcend partisanship.

He said that America’s founders intended, and themselves engaged in, the ideological battles that beset his presidency. But he called for transcending them. The 44th president also cited the 16th and 32nd as conquerors of the partisanship he did not overcome.

“There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office,” he said.

But Abraham Lincoln, often judged our greatest president, was perhaps our most partisan. His 1860 election was the cause Confederates states cited for seceding from the Union. To stop them, Lincoln waged a war that killed more than 600,000 Americans.

While renowned for his rhetoric, Lincoln won with arms, not words. He ended slavery not by convincing political opponents they were wrong, but by killing enough of them to impose his will.

Abraham Lincoln, often judged our greatest president, was perhaps our most partisan. 

Franklin Delano Roosevelt also used his gifts to win at, not transcend, party politics. He built a coalition that dominated American politics for 40 years, drew rancor and suspicion and dished it out. He lied. He was sneaky and double-dealing. It worked.

Lincoln would not have won the Civil War faster by tweeting the Gettysburg Address. Live-streaming his second inauguration call call to end the war with “malice toward none” and “bind up the nation’s wounds” would not have stopped an political opponent from killing him five weeks later.

Nor would a Facebook page have spared Roosevelt the hatred of many Republicans of his day. These presidents, if they lived today, would not bridge our political battles better than Obama. They didn’t bridge their own. They won them.

Lincoln and Roosevelt weren’t above politics. They were just such effective politicians that future Americans overwhelmingly decided they were right.

Obama may achieve the same but he won’t do it with platitudes, or calling for the vice president to cure cancer. “The future we want,” Obama declared in his State of the Union address, “will only happen happen if we fix our politics.”

Those words assume Americans share a vision for the future, and differ only on means for achieving it. They ignore the possibility that a desire for conflicting futures, reflecting varying value placed on life, liberty, material wealth, religion and more is the problem with our politics.

Failure to overcome rancor does not mean Obama has failed as president. He merely failed at the impossible alchemy of transferring rhetorical appeals into real results. 

Elected behind a call for hope and change, and post-partisan unity, Obama has never fully aligned such nebulously innocuous concepts with the reality that politics requires choice. And choices piss people off.

He keeps trying to persuade, with turns of phrase and flawless cadence, people who define themselves by opposing anything he suggests.

Partisanship, for reasons that go beyond Obama, is as high as it’s been since at least the 19th century. The Internet, and the media that allows Americans to hear what they want and endlessly confirm their biases, doesn’t help.

Would Roosevelt have conquered Fox News? Would Lincoln have charmed Richmond through Facebook?

Failure to overcome rancor does not mean Obama has failed as president. He merely failed at the impossible alchemy of transferring rhetorical appeals into actual unity. 

He said Friday that infrastructure projects, dams and or a new electric grid require, “a common vision.” That helps, but mostly they require political power.

Obama’s acts, helping 18 million people obtain health insurance, overseeing recovery from an economic crash, largely delivering on pledges to end wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, stand on their own, apart from rhetoric. They are not reflections of universally shared values, but choices. His success depends on whether history deems them good ones.

Obama has not resolved the problem of both achieving his policy goals and asserting everyone should agree on them. That is the reason his final State of Union speech fell a bit flat, instead of soaring above the partisanship of the House floor. It’s also the reason it doesn’t much matter.

Deeds last. Speeches belong on YouTube or Snapchat. They are communications. You send them; people watch them. Then, snap, they’re gone.

Dan Friedman has worked as senior Washington correspondent for the New York Daily News and reported on the Senate and congressional oversight for National Journal. He started his reporting career in Boston. He is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and holds a Masters in International Relations from the London School of Economics.

Screengrab via The White House/YouTube

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*First Published: Jan 16, 2016, 3:55 pm