Robert Stein 1924-2014

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

A Haitus for Honest Abe

News flash for the punditocracy: Barack Obama is not a YouTube reincarnation of Lincoln. Despite their common Illinois roots and the reverberations over race, pace Doris Kearns Goodwin, it's time to put aside Obama-Lincoln comparisons and be realistic about what the new president is facing in a 21st century world.

Evan Thomas at Newsweek obviously did not get the memo and in the new issue writes: "It is the season to compare Barack Obama to Abraham Lincoln. Two thin men from rude beginnings, relatively new to Washington but wise to the world, bring the nation together to face a crisis. Both are superb rhetoricians, both geniuses at stagecraft and timing. Obama, like Lincoln and unlike most modern politicians, even writes his own speeches, or at least drafts the really important ones—by hand, on yellow legal paper..."

But this kind of mooning over Obama obscures the tough, torturing questions he has to deal with, even before taking office. Notes on a yellow legal pad won't go very far toward stabilizing financial markets, saving Detroit, realigning our Mideast policy and solving the high pile of other problems George W. Bush is leaving on the Oval Office desk.

When President Obama is sworn in, the last thing he needs is gauzy expectations that he will wave a Lincolnesque wand and make them all go away.

There will be hard, practical political choices and the decisions of the new administration are going to displease and disappoint not only its critics but fervent supporters who, with the luxury of venting their rage during the Bush era, are not poised to accept tradeoffs and incremental improvements.

But there can't be an Emancipation Proclamation from the national enslavement to stupidity and meanness that makes all the consequences go away with a few strokes of a pen.

Even the ebullient Newsweek essay ends on a cautionary note:

"With luck, he will not be confronted with lose-lose decisions like LBJ, who had to choose between the Great Society and the war in Vietnam and ultimately lost both. Obama will surely face some hard choices, and possibly all at once. He may not wind up as a tragic figure like LBJ, but he may also disappoint the expectations of his vast legions of believers. He will not be 'the One'; he will be human like the rest of us."

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