Lincoln’s Lesson for Obama

Steven Spielberg’s new film Lincoln has received praise from both sides of our increasingly hostile political divide. But amid stunning screenplay, brilliant acting, and surprising historical accuracy, one potentially negative feature emerges – timing.

National Journal’s Jill Lawrence aptly called the film “a lesson in realpolitik for a squeamish age.” In a Huffington Post article, film critic Marshall Fine wrote “with any luck, Barack Obama will not only see it but take it as a template for the current lame-duck session of Congress and for his impending second term.”

Lincoln focuses on the three months between the 16th President’s reelection and the passage of the 16th Amendment in the House of Representatives. In a fantastic mix of bribery and conviction, Lincoln convinces all House Republicans and a few Democrats to support the abolition of slavery.

The film does not shy away from clear instances of political payoffs. Lincoln contracts men behind closed doors to offer defeated Congressmen jobs in exchange for their votes.

Lincoln eloquently and beautifully argues that corruption may be praiseworthy to promote so noble a cause. The 16th Amendment arguably justified the Civil War and ended the evil of slavery in America.

Many issues currently divide the American electorate now as slavery did then. Conservatives highlight the perverse incentive of welfare – government rewarding lazy behavior. Liberals focus on the rich, who do not pay “their fair share.” As the “fiscal cliff” looms, both movements flex their muscles, trying to convince America that entitlement cut backs or tax increases, respectively, will fix the country’s economic quagmire.

This situation is not new. Since at least the days of Ronald Reagan – if not those of Barry Goldwater – ballooning government has taken a central focus in political debate. The final solution – which could free Americans from the shackles of an increasingly overbearing government – may mark a victory as glorious as the abolition of slavery.

Regularly compared to the 16th President, Obama has certainly attempted to “learn the lessons of history.” In an article for the Atlantic Magazine, he wrote, “Lincoln is a president I turn to often.”

“He calls on us through the ages to commit ourselves to the unfinished work he so nobly advanced – the work of perfecting our Union,” Obama said.

In the 2012 election cycle, Lincoln director Steven Spielberg donated $1,195,200 to Democratic candidates and organizations. He donated $5,000 to Barack Obama specifically and $1,100,000 to Priorities USA Action, the pro-Obama political action committee. Not ungrateful, the President hosted Spielberg, along with Dreamworks CEO Stacy Snider, Lincoln’s producer and screenwriter, and actors Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Gloria Reuben, and Tommy Lee Jones at the White House for an early screening of the movie on November 15.

Although Spielberg has planned this film since 1999, he cut filming to a brief two months, from October 17 to December 19, in 2011. Scheduled for early release three days after the election, the film seemed calculated to speak to Obama, in victory or defeat.

After his reelection, Lincoln maneuvered the House of Representatives to pass the 16th Amendment during the “lame duck” session of Congress – the time between the election and its subsequent inauguration. Lincoln used this transition to maximal effect, a fact the movie praises.

Even if Obama had not been reelected, the film would have urged him to use his last three months effectively. While current law prohibits bribery, Obama can use hidden, back room negotiations – as he did during the healthcare debate – to get his way.

Well-intentioned lies and shady deals may form a permanent feature in political life. Nevertheless, the ends do not justify the means, and if Obama takes this film as a mandate to work “behind the scenes,” he will have made a tremendous mistake.



  1. The omission of Frederick Douglas is just a
    portion of the convenient oversights in this
    film. To get the real truth about Lincoln
    and slavery you must listen to noted historian
    Lerone Bennett.