Michael Gerson: Obama Fails the Lincoln Test

Michael Gerson is an op-ed columnist for The Washington Post.

During his recent speech to Congress, President Obama gave Republicans this ideological glove to the face: “We all remember Abraham Lincoln as the leader who saved our Union. . . . But in the middle of a Civil War, he was also a leader who looked to the future — a Republican president who mobilized government to build the Transcontinental Railroad, launch the National Academy of Sciences, set up the first land-grant colleges.”

It is a familiar rhetorical tactic — an attempt to checkmate your opponent by moving his own king. During Ronald Reagan’s 1980 Republican convention speech, he quoted Franklin Roosevelt on the need to “eliminate unnecessary functions of government.” Countless Republicans have offered up John F. Kennedy on the efficacy of tax cuts.

But invoking Lincoln at the seance is always risky. He is not a tame spirit.

There is little doubt that the greatest Republican would now be viewed, in portions of his party, as a RINO — a Republican in Name Only. Lincoln was a lifelong advocate of Whig economics, in which government took a limited but vigorous role in promoting economic opportunity. Lincoln foresaw a vast, prosperous, commercial republic, bound and strengthened by a national bank and by publicly financed roads, canals and rails. He had little patience with Thomas Jefferson’s anti-government ideology. A great nation, in Lincoln’s view, would require free labor, public education and avenues for commerce.

This type of Republicanism is a challenge to Tea Party ideology, as Obama implied in his speech. Yet Obama still looks awkward in the stovepipe hat...

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