Posted January 18, 2009 at 5:23 pm, in From the USW International President
By Leo W. Gerard
Symbols of the 16th president of the United States surround the soon-to-be 44th. And they did so from the beginning.
Barack Obama, formerly a Senator from Illinois, announced his plan to run for president on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday from the steps of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, the site of Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech, which launched Lincoln’s own campaign for the Senate.
Once elected, Obama assembled a “team of rivals” cabinet, as Lincoln did, including as his secretary of state, his chief challenger for the Democratic nomination, New York Senator Hillary Clinton, just as Lincoln selected for state his foremost contender for the Republican nomination, New York Senator William Seward.
Before the inauguration, Obama will pause for reflection and a concert at the Lincoln Memorial, where a somber statue sits beside the inscribed words of the Gettysburg Address. He’ll attend a luncheon featuring Lincoln’s favorite foods. Finally, Obama will place his right hand on the same Bible that Lincoln did when he took the oath of office on March 4, 1861.
Symbols cannot, however, convey the depth of connection between their presidencies. It is crucial for working Americans that the 44th President appreciate that mere imagery such as Lincoln luncheons and concerts is insufficient. What the union needs now is for Obama to follow the philosophical footsteps of Abraham.
When Lincoln took office, most of the country was in the midst of a deep recession caused by the Panic of 1857. “It struck after a period of prosperity accompanied by higher prices, speculation and increasing powers accruing to the nation’s banks,” New York Times reporter Steven R. Weisman, wrote in his book, “The Great Tax Wars.” It resulted, he wrote, in a run on the banks, selling on Wall Street, falling prices, declining trade and the federal government saddled with deficits and debts. The U.S. economic slump, uncontrolled by Lincoln’s predecessor in the White House, spread internationally.
Then, four weeks after Lincoln took the oath of office, the Civil War began with shots fired on April 12, 1861 at Fort Sumter, S.C.
Similarly, Obama has the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to manage. His predecessor has bequeathed him the most serious recession since the Great Depression and the largest federal debt ever created in a presidency. Risky speculation and deregulation caused last year’s financial bank failures that, in turn, pulled down the rest of the economy, as in 1857.
Lincoln is celebrated for preserving the union and freeing the slaves. But that would not have been possible without his economic accomplishments. It is the philosophy at the base of those achievements that must be the prototype for change in America now.
While waging war, Lincoln also passed the Homestead Act giving land to those who would build houses on their plots and become family farmers; the Land Grant Colleges Act, promoting advanced farming methods, scientific research and access to higher education for the working classes; the Pacific Railway Act for construction of the first transcontinental railroad, and higher charges on imports to protect American industry and American workers.
The connection among these diverse laws is a respect for American workers and a belief that government should grant each American the opportunity to improve his lot by dint of hard work. Lincoln expressed this in a message to a Special Session of Congress in 1861: “This is essentially a people’s contest . . . It is a struggle for maintaining in the world that form and substance of government whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men – to lift artificial weights from all shoulders – to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all – to afford all an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.”
Lincoln saw himself as a person who had benefited from America’s ability to give her citizens opportunity. The son of uneducated farmers, he had only a year of formal education. He’d worked as a riverboat pilot, country store clerk, blacksmith, surveyor and postmaster. But he’d also read and studied and worked himself to the position of a reasonably wealthy small town lawyer and got elected as a lawmaker, and ultimately, president.
He also wrote, very early on, in a letter to the editor of the Sangamon Journal in New Salem, Ill., in 1836, “I go for all sharing the privileges of government who assist in bearing its burdens.”
In recent times, soldiers and workers have borne the burdens of government while the privileges accrued to the wealthy. The rich got Bush’s big tax breaks. Banks got deregulated. And big corporations escaped enforcement of federal environmental and safety regulations.
Last year financial banks and a major insurance company failed and got rescued by the federal government after Wall Street wise-guys risked untold hundreds of billions in crazy schemes. Those salvages are all on the taxpayers’ dime. The failures led to the stock market diving, which shriveled worker’s 401K retirement accounts and pension funds. They also froze credit, which ultimately contributed to 2.6 million layoffs, the highest level in six decades, as companies couldn’t get money they needed to operate. Of those, 791,000 were manufacturing jobs. As workers lost their jobs, or feared it, they stopped spending. So even less money circulated in the economy. The recession was on.
This is Obama’s crisis. And this is where he should look to Lincoln. The 16th President saw the value in “Buy American.” Many historians believe Lincoln’s higher fees on imports enriched the federal treasury, which was crucial to pay for the war, and promoted American industry, particularly the steel industry, which forged the rails for his transcontinental railroad. Those industries Lincoln promoted made America strong and employed Americans and new immigrants.
Lincoln’s railroads accomplished two goals. They created jobs during their construction and connected the country afterward. Those connections made commerce cheaper and American industry more competitive internationally.
Lincoln’s new colleges and homesteads provided opportunity to Americans while making the country agriculturally self-sufficient and scientifically advanced.
Obama has spoken of similar goals – to improve schools and lower college costs, for example.
That’s good as far as it goes. But this country was not built on sub-prime mortgages and credit default swaps. And it cannot sustain itself with an economy based on risky trading of Wall Street paper or consuming on credit. It must be productive. It must make things.
Obama’s administration, like Lincoln’s, must support industry and manufacturing and the jobs they create.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of the Lincoln biography, “Team of Rivals,” said after speaking to Obama about it, “There’s no better mentor for a president to look to than Lincoln’s leadership . . . Somehow, Lincoln has gotten into his heart and mind, and that can only be for the good.”
Working people across America have hope it will be good for them.