20 Jan 2013

Lincoln, Obama and a House divided

A president, on the brink of his second term, racing against the clock to push historic legislation through a reluctant House. Does Lincoln’s battle to abolish slavery hold any parallels today?

As symbolism goes, it does not get much better. President Obama held a special screening of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln movie at the White House, surrounded by cast and crew, days after the election that swept him back to power.

Not a single Republican turned up to see the movie which depicts the epic struggle of a president against a sharply divided House, realising all too clearly the demands of practical politics and the limits of his power.

The film was shown much later to members of Congress, but back in November, Obama said there were lessons to be learned for his own leadership, telling Time magazine: “Part of what Lincoln teaches us is that to pursue the highest ideals and a deeply moral cause requires you also engage and get your hands dirty.”

“And there are trade-offs, and there are compromises.” The power of the office, he said, was often overstated – but at the very least, you could set a direction, a destination which might only be reached in years to come.

There are trade-offs, and there are compromises. President Obama

When I saw the film, shown in those immediate post-election days in downtown New York, the parallels with the current partisan deadlock seemed real enough, or as others have argued, liberal Hollywood’s vision of how the political power struggle ought to play out.

The movie, produced by Stephen Spielberg and written by Tony Kushner, is based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s seminal book on the sixteenth president, Team of Rivals – which served as a model for some of Obama’s political choices when he first came to office.

It is set in early 1865, when Lincoln was trying to turn his emergency proclamation abolishing slavery into law, by passing the thirteenth amendment through the House of Representatives.

Watch: Jon Snow's interview with Steven Spielberg on how Lincoln changed his life

But it was not just party loyalties which were a problem: these were the dying days of the civil war, and Lincoln knew he had to win the abolition vote before the conflict ended and the southern states were readmitted.

He had just won re-election, but some sixty three Democrats had not: there was a brief window of opportunity to lure them with sinecure jobs, in exchange for backing the amendment.

As ever in politics, there are no moral absolutes: one figure, Thaddeus Stephens, emerges as the lone voice calling for full racial equality – but for Lincoln, the effort was purely pragmatic – politics not just as the art of the possible, but the art of the plausible.

He deploys a team of enforcers, sent out to bully, cajole or downright bribe wavering representatives: and despite efforts by moderate Republicans to negotiate peace with the South, Lincoln’s operatives see to it that then peace envoys are delayed just outside Washington for just long enough.

The art of the plausible

“So far as I know”, he wrote at the time, “there are no peace commissioners in the city, or likely to be in it.” Dissembling, at its best.

Of course the film is not a simple reflection of today’s political troubles: after all, Spielberg began working on it almost a decade ago. If anything, it serves to illustrate that political deadlock and divided government are part of American history: twas ever thus.

But as a lesson, it reveals the crucial importance of using political capital wisely: of knowing not just which battles to fight, but how. Lincoln, like Obama, tried at first to remain aloof from the undignified squabbling at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue: in the end, he is forced to plunge into the fray.

As Michael Gerson put it in The Washington Post: “For Lincoln, all politics is barter” – everything is up for compromise, except abolition itself.

150 years after the 13th amendment was enshrined into law, and the nation has its first black president – but, say political scientists, what has officially been the most polarised Congress ever.

Since the November election, some twenty states have petitioned the White House calling for the right of secession, earning them a flat-out ‘No’ from the office of public engagement.

And there is a constantly ticking clock: a debt ceiling, a fiscal cliff, the fever of urgency surrounding gun control and climate change and the escalating dangers abroad.

In the end, of course – spoiler alert – Lincoln wins his political battle: the 13th amendment is enshrined into law. The outcome of Obama’s own battles with Congress may not have such a Hollywood ending.

Felicity Spector writes about US politics for Channel 4 News