Everyone’s giving the president advice, telling him he’s messing up, that he needs to change strategies, that he’s weak and too much of a compromiser, that he’s stubborn, that he’s facing political disaster in the upcoming election, and that these are the worst of times.
President Lincoln, I’m talking about. Somehow I’ve got lost in the history books again. It’s 1864. Lincoln has been cruising all summer to certain defeat. His friends have told him: Your re-election is an impossibility. On Aug. 23 he writes a memo, folds it up, and asks his Cabinet to sign it without reading it (see the original here). It states:
This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he can not possibly save it afterwards. – A. Lincoln
Lincoln never explained why he wanted the Cabinet to sign it without reading it.
In any case, the darkness of August was suddenly interrupted by the sunburst of a telegram from Gen. William T. Sherman on Sept. 3: “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won.”
Lincoln ordered 100 guns fired in major cities across the Union. The Democrats, meanwhile, had just finished picking their candidate, Gen. George McClellan, but the peace faction had insisted that the party platform call for an armistice with no conditions other than the restoration of the Union. The Confederacy could retain slavery. McClellan, a War Democrat, accepted the nomination but rejected the peace platform. So what did a vote for him really mean? Lincoln stomped him in the general election, 55 percent to 45 percent in the popular vote but with a landslide in the Electoral College.
Afterward, he showed the blind memorandum to the Cabinet, and said he figured he’d have to say to President-elect McClellan, “You raise as many troops as you possibly can for this final trial, and I will devote all my energies to assist and finish the war.”
And then Secretary of State William H. Seward said, “And the general would have answered you, ‘Yes, yes,’ and the next day when you saw him again and pressed these views upon him he would have said, ‘Yes, yes,’ and so on forever, and would have done nothing at all.”
And Lincoln said, “At least I should have done my duty and have stood clear before my own conscience.”
Throughout this politically stormy period, Lincoln remained steadfast in his insistence that peace would come only on the far side of the battlefield, and resisted entreaties to end the war without ending slavery. He cited both military and moral reasons for rejecting such a compromise. In a letter he never actually mailed, he wrote:
“We cannot spare the hundred and forty or fifty thousand [African Americans] now serving us as soldiers, seamen, and laborers. This is not a question of sentiment or taste, but one of physical force, which may be measured and estimated as horse-power and steam-power are measured and estimated. Keep it, and you can save the Union. Throw it away, and the Union goes with it. Nor is it possible for any administration to retain the service of these people with the express or implied understanding that upon the first convenient occasion they are to be reenslaved. It can not be, and it ought not to be.”
Frederick Douglass summarized the election soon afterward: “Slavery and anarchy were ranged on one side and Liberty and order on the other. Between them the people have chosen, and have chosen wisely and well.”
So that was 150 years ago. I’m not trying to compare the 44th president to the 16th, but I am going to toggle back and forth in time, and if there’s an echo, so be it. Today we’re once again witnessing civil wars, medieval hatred, zealotry and aggression, and everyone’s got an opinion about what the president ought to do. (Notice that there is no great upswelling of opposition to the Republican foreign policy, since no one is sure what that might be — is it John McCain’s or Rand Paul’s? Another lesson from 1864: Lincoln and his “Union” party struggled politically until the Democrats met Aug. 29 in Chicago and actually adopted a platform that everyone could take a look at.)
Many people wish the president would find a way to talk about the foreign crises in a voice less measured and more in keeping with our collective outrage. This president is, as noted in this space many times, a master at turning down the volume in any crisis, but he has shown no inclination to turn it up when the public demands it. He calls for coalition-building when many people wish he’d call for the 101st Airborne. He doesn’t speak Cowboy, and for some that’s a welcome change from his predecessor (who regretted some of his Cowboy rhetoric). Obama is not a president who is likely to get up in front of everyone and announce, “We’re gonna go kill some bad guys.”
War is the last-resort instrument of policy, as Clausewitz so famously declared. Yesterday in a small bookshop (“Read It Again, Sam”) in Charlottesville I purchased James McPherson’s book “Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution,” which has a chapter on Lincoln and the idea of unconditional surrender. McPherson notes the Clausewitz dictum and goes on to divide strategy into two categories: National and military. Lincoln always kept the national strategy in mind with his every move, and if that meant promoting to the rank of general a German-American with no experience in order to build support for the war among German Americans, he’d do that. The smart commander-in-chief always keeps the larger national interest in mind, and does not let military strategy alone dictate the next move. And a modern president must look at the entire, overpressured globe, and visualize the secondary and tertiary effects of his actions — and the effects of inaction.
Obama gets plenty of advice. My guess is that he’s a good listener. And my guess is that he knows that a president has to be his own best counselor.