Abraham Lincoln

"Abraham Lincoln" from onlinewoman on flickr

The President of the United States is not a descendant of former slaves, which may make it easier for him to draw analogies to what President Lincoln once said — see David Dayen’s post on Obama’s last lecture — about his willingness to make compromises about freeing slaves to advance his goal of preserving the Union.

Let’s recall what Lincoln actually wrote in his letter of 1862 to Horace Greeley in which he explained his Emancipation policy as it related to saving the Union:

. . . I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time save Slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy Slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy Slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about Slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save this Union, and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. . . .

What’s important about the history is that Mr. Lincoln was in fact in the process of freeing slaves as his armies retook Confederate States. But as Mr. Obama understands this history, since President Lincoln was willing to make that compromise on America’s most egregious original sin, how can anyone criticize President Obama for his willingness to compromise on Social Security, Medicare and a dozen other strongly supported American programs.

I think the President’s analogy is not merely wrong; it illustrates precisely the President’s moral blindside that his critics on the left find most offensive.

It’s clear that Lincoln believed preserving the Union was paramount, and so he was willing to compromise on how far to extend the Emancipation Proclamation in freeing slaves, depending on how that extension served that paramount purpose. But let us consider a more interesting case.

Suppose Lincoln had not been shot and that the United States had ratified the 13th and 14th Amendments, so that slavery was now unconstitutional, and all persons born and naturalized in the US, including all former slaves, were now citizens. And suppose the State of South Carolina still strenuously (and violently) resisted being forced back into the Union without slaves. Now suppose South Carolina and other resistant states offered to end their resistance if only President Lincoln and the Congress agreed to repeal the 13th and 14th Amendments and let each state decide whether to allow slavery or not.

Is President Obama now telling us that President Lincoln would still be regarded as a great President if he’d accepted that “compromise”? And isn’t that the analogous argument he’s now making as the justification for compromising on taking away Medicare for some who would otherwise be entitled to it (by pushing back the eligibility age), or reducing benefits for both existing and future entitled beneficiaries of Social Security?

When the White House reminds us that even FDR compromised on Social Security by initially not making it universal, it’s important to remember that “deal” brought new benefits to millions who didn’t previously have anything. But the compromises Mr. Obama proposes all too often are taking away something we already have.

To be sure, a nation is sometimes forced to accept measures it would rather avoid. But you don’t justify those deals in the same way; you explain why you were forced to lose ground.

We can’t know what Lincoln would have done in this case. But if Mr. Obama wants to be the “looking forward” Presidency and “win the future,” then he needs to move forward as he justifies his compromises. That’s what Lincoln did. Moving backwards is not the same, even if it’s part of some compromise process Mr. Obama finds so satisfying.