The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Abraham Lincoln’s political instincts offer a blueprint for Biden

How incrementalism can produce big wins and moral clarity.

President Biden talks about the economy at the White House in January. Behind him is a portrait of Abraham Lincoln. (Evan Vucci/AP)
7 min

During a tumultuous first year in office, President Biden struggled to advance his legislative agenda with razor thin majorities in both houses of Congress and a deeply fractured public. In his second year, the crisis wrought by the Russian invasion of Ukraine has effectively halted his ambitious domestic agenda. But all is not hopeless for Biden. Abraham Lincoln’s presidency offers important lessons on leadership that could point the way to greater success.

Lincoln recognized during the supreme crisis of the Civil War that maintaining popular support was paramount. This often meant delaying or deferring progress on the great moral issue of his time — emancipation and achieving full citizenship rights for Black Americans. While Lincoln waited for the right political moment, he took great care not to offend enslavers loyal to the Union. At times, he pandered to White prejudices.

While this strategy often dismayed the left flank of his party, the “Republican Radicals,” Lincoln understood that winning was a prerequisite for doing good at all. His accumulation of small victories led to bigger ones — eventually including emancipation.

As an office-seeker in Illinois, where political discourse was often overtly racist, Lincoln firmly opposed the spread of slavery but was never an abolitionist.

In his famous Senate debates with Stephen A. Douglas in 1858, he courageously opined that in the right to earn a living “he [the Black man] is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas and the equal of every living man.” But Lincoln declined to endorse equal political rights for Black men, including the right to vote.

He lost that election, of course. But he won the Republican nomination for president two years later, largely because he was perceived as less radical and more electable than other Republican contenders.

Once the Civil War broke out, Lincoln worried about retaining the loyalty of border states, whose support he needed to win the war. This concern repeatedly tempered his policies.

Early in the war, in 1861, Gen. John C. Frémont decreed freedom for enslaved people in Missouri. After hearing from his friend, Joshua Speed, that the order would jeopardize Union support in Kentucky, Lincoln revoked it. James Russell Lowell, the Boston Brahmin poet, grumbled, “How many times are we to save Kentucky and lose our self-respect?”

Yet Lincoln’s policy soon advanced, albeit in zigzag fashion. In April 1862, he signed the District of Columbia Emancipation Act, ending the shame of slaveholding in the nation’s capital. Yet the act proved problematic with abolitionists because Lincoln and Congress had compromised by agreeing to compensate enslavers for their “property.”

Later that year, Lincoln threatened to veto the Confiscation Act, which empowered the president to sue for rebel property, including human “property.” After eliciting a legislative adjustment, Lincoln signed a compromise bill.

Soon after, in August 1862, Horace Greeley published a widely circulated criticism of Lincoln for failing to use the new law to emancipate enslaved people. Lincoln famously replied that his purpose was to preserve the Union, regardless of whether that meant freeing none of the enslaved people, freeing all of them or freeing some of them.

Put differently, Lincoln favored emancipation — but on his timetable, not Greeley’s or Frémont’s.

Lincoln was already moving toward emancipation. When a Southerner suggested that the Union offer peace on the basis of restoring the country “as it was” (with slavery intact), Lincoln irritably replied, “broken eggs cannot be mended.” A month after his correspondence with Greeley, on Sept. 22, 1862, Lincoln unveiled the Emancipation Proclamation. Frederick Douglass said, “We shout for joy that we live to record this righteous decree.”

Yet the “preliminary proclamation” was a feat of moderation. Emancipation was wielded as a conditional sword; any states that returned to the Union before Jan. 1, 1863, would not be affected. Nor would enslaved people in loyal states, such as Kentucky, gain their freedom.

Lincoln was a pragmatic politician who recognized that a radical policy would jeopardize his mandate. Perhaps to minimize the political fallout from the proclamation, Lincoln also pledged to continue what was probably his worst policy — supporting a (voluntary) exodus of African Americans to an overseas colony.

The president had his eye on the fall elections and worried that Democrats would invoke the proclamation to whip up racist fearmongering. He was correct. One campaign notice in New York meanly avowed, “We are unwilling to lose our freedom at the North for the purpose of bestowing it upon the negro slaves of the South.”

As Lincoln had feared, Republicans did lose seats. But these losses did not deter him from issuing the final version of the proclamation on Jan. 1 — which did not mention colonization. Signing the decree seemed to strengthen Lincoln’s conviction, for he remarked that if his name were ever recorded by history, “It will be for this act.”

In a less noticed remark, Lincoln rebutted the widespread fear that emancipation would lead to job losses for northern Whites. “It is dreaded that the freed people will swarm forth and cover the whole land,” he observed. But Black Americans, he noted, were “already in the land.” Lincoln was not just endorsing emancipation, he was implicitly defending the rights of future Black citizens.

In 1864, radicals sought to block Lincoln’s renomination. They favored a thorough remaking of Southern society after the Confederacy surrendered. Lincoln, by contrast, again opted for moderation. He favored a rapid reintegration of rebel states and he failed to endorse universal suffrage, though he urged that in Louisiana, which was moving toward early reentry to the Union, some Blacks gain the right to vote.

Once again, fear of political repercussions drove Lincoln. He feared losing the presidential election, jeopardizing a Union victory and emancipation. But once he secured the nomination, he advanced a significant step, embracing a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery everywhere — what would become the 13th Amendment.

Over the summer of 1864, horrific war casualties caused the Union’s outlook (and Lincoln’s electoral prospects) to sag. Lincoln now faced pressure from the other direction — pressure to offer peace if the South returned to the Union, with the slavery question to be settled later.

Here was another lesson for future presidents. After nearly four years of moving incrementally, Lincoln had arrived at the point where no compromise was possible. With his reelection on the line, he rejected any peace that did not include both reunion and emancipation.

After winning reelection, Lincoln finally left no doubt where he stood. In his second inaugural, the president decisively reframed slavery as an offense to the Almighty that had brought the scourge of the Civil War.

Lincoln’s contemporaries always believed his heart was with the radical opponents of slavery. Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, a strong abolitionist, once told a friend who had criticized the president’s gradualism that if he knew Lincoln as Sumner did, “you would be grateful that he is so true to all that you have at heart.”

But Lincoln believed that successful leaders could not move too far ahead of the public. He had a genius, in Lowell’s words, for “so gently guiding public sentiment that he seems to follow it.” He exuded humility, and appreciated that neither party could claim to be unerring. Much earlier in his career, he had defended an infrastructure bill against a withering attack with the modest assertion, “There are few things wholly evil, or wholly good.”

Present-day America is bitterly divided — but Lincoln’s time was divided, too. As with Biden, political and legislative realities constrained Lincoln. But Lincoln’s ability to successfully wield gradualism and build to bigger achievements offers a possible method for overcoming divisions today.

Perhaps if Biden practiced the art of incrementalism, he might find that small victories can lead to the moral clarity of larger ones.