Barack Obama has consciously set out to invite comparisons with the greatest American president who ever lived, Abraham Lincoln. This takes a vaulting self-confidence and a set of preternaturally steady nerves. As Brahms said of his great predecessor Beethoven: “You can’t have any idea what it’s like always to hear such a giant marching behind you.” Yet, Obama welcomes Lincoln over his shoulder.
Obama’s confidence takes other, more mundane but still formidable forms. He believes that he can bleach the poison out of American politics through his irenic manner and persuasive powers; that he’s the ultimate pragmatist who can find the right answer to any public-policy problem without the guideposts of ideology; that he can find the right balance between stoking the economy now and forestalling inflation and excessive debt later; that he can reform entitlements despite having built no mandate to do so in the 2008 campaign.
What undergirds Obama’s assuredness? First, there’s his own talent, of which he is quite aware. According to The New Yorker magazine, he told someone he was interviewing in 2007 for the job of his political director: “I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director.” Obama is a crown prince of America’s aristocracy of merit. He rose from unlikely origins to march through the country’s elite institutions–Columbia, Harvard, the University of Chicago–gathering the credentials to match his brainpower.
Then, there’s his campaign during the past two years–technically nearly perfect and harmonious to the point of boring. Obama clearly believes he can transfer his skill at managing the campaign to managing a government buffeted by a financial crisis and two wars. By layering strong-willed, talented people with responsibility for the same policy areas in Cabinet positions and in the White House, Obama has signaled a remarkable faith in his ability to extract what’s best for him from spirited internal debate and jostling.
Obama also knows that during the past two years he has understood the political moment better than any other national politician and been able to give voice to it with his gifted pen. Obama’s speech at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Iowa in November 2007 launched him in the Democratic primaries. Obama could deliver the same speech today–shorn of some of its harsher lines crafted for a caucus audience–and it would seem just as appropriate as back then, in its call for change and post-partisanship. Obama could be forgiven for thinking that in uniquely tapping into the moment, he’s uniquely suited to address its challenges.
Finally, there’s history. If Obama’s appropriation of Lincoln has been audacious, as the nation’s first African-American president he obviously has a symbolic bond with the Great Emancipator. Obama is cool to a fault, but occasionally the import of his journey to the White House has gotten to even him. He choked up practicing his acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention when he invoked Martin Luther King Jr. As the crowds thronged to see him on his train ride to Washington retracing Lincoln’s trip there, he was visibly moved. The temptation to feel himself a man of destiny has to be almost overwhelming.
There’s a danger in that, of course. Americans prize a jaunty optimism and self-confidence in their presidents–part of the political charm of Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. The pitfall is if self-assurance gives way to self-regard. At the Western Wall in Jerusalem last summer, Obama left a note praying for, among other things, protection against pride. The most powerful man in the world at age 47, regarded worshipfully by his admirers and with apparently not a doubt about his own capacities, Obama needs that prayer more than ever. He must resist hubris and surely–flush with this moment–is confident he can do that, too.