On Thursday evening Barack Obama delivered a remarkable speech about Lincoln and his message in Springfield, Illinois. The speech got relatively little public attention, which is not surprising considering its complicated theme: the notion of union and its importance. Was this really an appreciation of Lincoln, or a justification of Obama’s first efforts at bipartisanship—now widely viewed as failed? I am not sure about that, but the explanation of the importance of union is fascinating and persuasive. Moreover, Obama’s ability to deliver all of this with a bit of self-effacing humor is very impressive.
Obama is using Lincoln and his vision as a rebuttal to the “knee-jerk disdain for government” which the Republican Party has kept as its mantra since Reagan. In essence he is questioning its legitimacy as a Republican perspective, and arguing that Democrats and Republicans should find common ground in the values of the Lincoln presidency. It’s an intriguing gambit, and the historical elements are appealing. But the basic question remains: does the Republican Party of today really have anything to do with Abraham Lincoln? Has it not in fact become the party of the neo-Confederates for whom his very image is hateful? That, certainly, is what this week’s worth of Washington reality suggests.