This opinion piece by Matthew Pinsker originally appeared in The Weekly Wonk, an online magazine from the New America Foundation, in June 2014. The original title was “Obama’s Lincoln Moment.”
There was a particularly tense period during the summer of 1862 when Abraham Lincoln finally shed his folksy demeanor and confessed some of his real frustrations as president. Sounding more like Tony Soprano than the Great Emancipator, Old Abe growled in a private letter, “I distrust the wisdom if not the sincerity of friends, who would hold my hands while my enemies stab me.” Then adding a line which represented for him a kind of leadership credo, Lincoln wrote firmly, “It may as well be understood, once [and] for all, that I shall not surrender this game leaving any available card unplayed.”
After the various political events of the last week, it’s not too difficult to imagine President Obama offering an equally grim statement of executive purpose. With the firing of Eric Shinseki, the dramatic (and perhaps illegal) POW swap for Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, and following the defiant announcement of prospective new EPA rules on carbon emissions, the beleaguered president has apparently reached his “any available card” moment. It’s certainly the first time, in quite a long time really, that he’s appeared almost Lincolnian.
The adjective “Lincolnian” conjures up many associations, but chief among them should be toughness. Despite his genial reputation as a story-teller and prairie-bred outsider, President Lincoln was unyielding during his time in Washington in the pursuit of any policy objectives which he considered important. He did not shy from confrontations with either enemies or erstwhile friends. Historians still debate whether he favored union over emancipation (or vice versa), but there’s no doubting that he was quite relentless in the pursuit of both goals during the Civil War.
Most important, he proved utterly demanding as a boss. In four years as commander-in-chief, Lincoln worked through four generals-in-chief, two secretaries of war, and dozens of hapless field officers. During just one nine-month stretch of the grueling conflict, the Army of the Potomac, which was the main Union fighting force in the Eastern Theater, experienced four different commanding generals — all under intense pressure from the top. Lincoln even fired one of those figures right in the middle of the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania and just days before the Battle of Gettysburg.
Military officials were not the only ones to face Lincoln’s fierce scrutiny. Only two members of the Lincoln cabinet, the so-called “team of rivals,” actually survived into his second term. At best, they were an unhappy and uncertain team. Lincoln even dumped his relatively innocuous vice-president, Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, in order to replace him for partisan reasons with Tennessee Democrat Andrew Johnson (a supremely catastrophic decision, by the way). According to one of Lincoln’s top White House aides (who also departed following that exhausting first term), the president simply ruled his cabinet “with tyrannous authority.”
Nobody seemed to satisfy The Tycoon, as his aides called him, at least not for long. Even General Grant, whom Lincoln respected greatly as among his toughest fighters, still received occasionally sharp presidential telegrams reminding him to stay on task. There was one missive fired off to Grant’s headquarters in August 1864 that truly captures the intensity of Lincoln’s behind-the-scenes spirit of command. Unimpressed by some boast from Grant about plans to deploy his various forces, Lincoln tersely reminded him to follow up carefully on all of his orders. “I repeat to you,” the Washington-weary president warned, “it will neither be done nor attempted unless you watch it every day, and hour, and force it.”
Watch it every day, and hour, and force it. That’s the Lincolnian advice that President Obama now finally seems to be taking to heart. After enduring last year’s debacle surrounding the healthcare.gov launch, he is approaching the scandal at the VA differently, even at the cost of a good man’s career. After previously hesitating over his authority to launch airstrikes in Syria, Obama is now practically defying Congress by ignoring the explicit statutory prohibition that forbids him from transferring prisoners out of Guantanamo Bay without providing proper notice. Whether right or wrong, his use of presidential signing statements and assertions of inherent Article II authority are as sweeping as any of the most imperial presidents, including Lincoln. That is also why his administration’s proposed use of an executive agency ruling to regulate carbon emissions seems so threatening to some in Washington. An emboldened president with little left to lose seems fully ready to demand greater action from his team and to wield his executive power in ways that will directly confront some of his most intractable enemies. Amazing as it sounds just a year after the government shutdown, the signs do seem to point toward yet another round of intensifying partisan combat.
Historians are notoriously bad at predicting the future, but I am one who’s willing to bet in this case on President Obama. He’s always held more cards than he has shown and if he’s truly ready to play them — all of them — then it’s possible that his “paragraph” in the history books, as he almost forlornly described it a few months ago, might just be stretched into a full chapter or two.