Column: Public Eye: Obama and Lincoln

By Bob Burnett
Tuesday April 01, 2008

In his remarkable March 18 speech, “A More Perfect Union,” Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama directly addressed the racial aspect of his campaign that, up until the preceding week, had largely been in the background. While the overt reason for the speech was the inflammatory remarks of Obama’s former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, it also responded to right wing hate messages recently picked up by the Clinton campaign, suggesting America isn’t ready for a black president. 

Polls indicate that 62 percent of Americans believe the United States will accept a black president. Nonetheless, since it became clear that Sen. Obama was a serious contender for the Democratic nomination, many have suggested the poll results were a reflection of political correctness, as respondents didn’t want to tell pollsters about their latent racism. And, as her desperate presidential campaign careens through Pennsylvania, Hillary Clinton seems increasingly willing to suggest she is more electable than Obama because, while she may be a woman, she’s the “right” color. 

Residing in Berkeley, I know no one who admits to being a racist and none of my friends has said they won’t vote for Obama because he’s black. Nonetheless, I’ve had acquaintances volunteer that someone in their family, a close friend, or “the guys back home” would never vote for a black candidate for president. I’m curious to know who these people are. Perhaps they’re the 13 percent of Americans identified in the latest NBC News / Wall Street Journal poll who believe Sen. Obama is a Muslim. Or, they may be the 14 percent who responded they would have some reservations about making Obama the first African-American president. But, there could be a simpler explanation; these bigots may constitute a significant element in the 32 percent of Americans who approve of the job George W. Bush is doing as president: died-in-the-wool conservatives who are stuck in a dysfunctional way of viewing race, the Bush administration, and our democracy. 

What these polls make clear is there are two competing views of Barack Obama. Some see him exclusively as a black candidate and believe he has received preferential treatment to get where he is. Others see him as the embodiment of the American myth of “the triumphant individual.” Obama’s life has many of the elements of the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches fables: he was raised by his mother and grandmother, worked his way through college, became a community organizer, attended Harvard Law School and became the first black president of the Law Review, and returned to Chicago where he was a successful civil rights attorney and author before entering politics. His first book, Dreams from My Father, is considered an American masterpiece. 

Many observers note the parallels between Barack Obama’s life and that of America’s 16th president, Abraham Lincoln. Both came from humble surroundings; Lincoln lost his mother when he was nine; Obama’s father left when he was two. Both are tall, lawyers, and began their political careers in the Illinois legislature. Lincoln also wrote his own speeches. 

Sen. Obama knew his presidential campaign would hinge on his response to the videos of Reverend Wright’s sermons, so he personally wrote the March 18 speech. Thus, the values and themes expressed in “A More Perfect Union” represent Obama’s true beliefs.  

His core message was contained in these lines: “Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have… white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze—a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many.” “A More Perfect Union” was not restricted to the issue of race. It was Obama’s prescription for a better America based upon a transformative politics of unity, a politics where, “all Americans … realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.” His speech was a call for a new populism, an appeal for Americans to unite against conservative policies that have divided us by race, gender, religion, and sexual preference in order to wage class warfare, to “favor the few over the many.” 

Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address concluded with an appeal to “the better angels of our nature” and Barack Obama has repeated this call. Indeed, many of the themes Lincoln sounded 148 years ago echo in Obama’s speech: the need for Americans to remember the values of our nation’s founders—all men are created equal—and stand together against injustice. And like many of Lincoln’s speeches, “A More Perfect Union” was an appeal for unity and reconciliation. 


Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at