If you admire Honest Abe you'll enjoy and appreciate Steven Spielberg's handsome new film, Lincoln. If you are alert to the political moment we are in, you also will see the relevance of the film to President Obama's strategy on taxes and spending.
Putting it succinctly, Abraham Lincoln was able to get the 13th Amendment through Congress in early 1865, after his resounding re-election, only by palpable resolve--overcoming his own Cabinet repeatedly--and by engaging in political deception and near-bribery (called logrolling in the trade). In a sense it is Lincoln in an anti-heroic light, but it correctly dignifies the political craft by showing how the crucial goal of abolishing slavery required virtues that were willing to get their hands dirty. Lincoln regretted it, but saw correctly it would end Southern will to fight and provide a platform for healing the nation's soul in the long term.
The film, whose script was authored by Tony Kushner, based on a book by Doris Kearns Goodwin, A Team of Rivals, might also have stressed Lincoln's willingness to hear out his critics even around his own Cabinet table in order to bring them together. That theme, central of the Doris Kearns Goodwin book, is in the film, but mainly as a restrained counterpoint. There might also have been examples shown of the patience Lincoln exhibited with foes on other issues and his regard for Constitutionalism.
Spielberg and Kushner are big financial backers of the President and screened the film for him a few days ago in the White House. It was clear that the President fully grasped--and, I expect, enthusiastically embraced--the seeming political lesson. I suspect that Lincoln's willingness is a crisis to bend rules to get the 13th Amendment passed is one of the reasons Mr. Obama has long and publicly admired Lincoln's career.
The trouble is, Lincoln was faced with a unique circumstance. Slavery has been called the Original Sin of America, the inadvertent stain on the U.S. Constitution, only washed by the blood of 600,000 Civil War deaths and rectified in law, supposedly, by the 13th and 14th Amendments, and the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. As slavery and the Civil War were unique challenges, so too were the methods required to meet them. But the slavery issue and how it was resolved as ever since seen as precedents for how political leaders might operate in any crisis. Think about Woodrow Wilson and the harsh laws of censorship he passed during World War I and about Franklin Roosevelt when he interned the Japanese-Americans at the outset of World War II.
Worse, the definition of a unique crisis is plainly fungible. A leader can always pander to sentiment in asserting (if only to oneself and one's followers) that the times we live in are unique and critical. So there also is often a disposition to use unconstitutional or questionable means to attain what a leader thinks is a necessary and honorable end. Mohammed Morsi thinks that in Egypt right now as he assumes dictatorial power. Hugo Chavez does it in Venezuela, Putin in Russia.
The way the 13th Amendment was passed becomes President Lincoln as a unique leader in a unique historical situation. But its use as a precedence has weakened the U.S. Constitution and its checks and balances.
But Barack Obama is no Lincoln. President Obama passed Obamacare through legislative trickery and possible unconstitutionality. He had no problem with any of it and undoubtedly would defend his actions to historians as necessary responses to a crisis. And there is ample reason to believe that the Fiscal Cliff coming up falls in the same category as far as he is concerned.
In Chicago, where Mr. Obama was first elected to office, there is always a crisis to justify dubious tactics.