Can Obama Learn How To Handle a Lame-Duck Congress by Watching Lincoln?

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Nov. 20 2012 5:42 AM

Abraham Lincoln, Vote Hunter

Can Obama learn how to handle Congress from watching Lincoln?

Daniel Day-Lewis as President Abraham Lincoln in “Lincoln”
Daniel Day-Lewis as President Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln

Photo by David James.

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is so lush you feel like you’re watching it in a velvet chair. The dark parlors and White House meeting rooms are full of fire and cigar smoke. The Lincoln played by Daniel Day Lewis seems so familiar it reminds you of the first time you heard him, except of course you never have. But after my wife and I watched the film, her first reaction was to say this: “I kept thinking about health care.” She wasn’t talking about the gritty scene at an Army hospital. She was talking about the Affordable Care Act.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk. Follow him on Twitter.

At the center of the film is Lincoln’s fight to find the votes to pass the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery, and though the bloody and muddy war scenes make the stakes quite clear, at its heart the movie is a math problem: How does Lincoln get two-thirds of the tick marks on the vote tally sheet to go his way? That's how a story about ending the enslavement of an entire race can remind you of health care reform. The math is the same in all big legislative fights: How hard do you push to get what is right when pushing too hard can spoil the whole enterprise? Not all legislative fights have the same moral weight. In much of the film, you see the tonnage in Lincoln’s face and his hands and his walk, but when it comes to the legislation, while Lincoln captures the nuts and bolts, it lacks that heft.

President Obama has seen Spielberg’s film and is a fan of the Doris Kearns Goodwin book, Team of Rivals, upon which it is based. Screenwriter Tony Kushner has said Obama liked it. So it makes you wonder what lessons a newly re-elected president with a gift for oratory might take from it, especially when our own president faces his own fight with a lame duck Congress.

The first lesson is that great oratory doesn’t get you votes. The movie starts and ends with Lincoln’s famous speeches. First, a hokey scene in which Union soldiers parrot the Gettysburg address back to its author  and then a final scene depicting Lincoln’s second inaugural address. But the main drama—the hunt for votes—has almost nothing to do with the president’s power of public persuasion. In the scenes where Lincoln tries to convince individual lawmakers, he is forgettable (an amazing achievement for Day-Lewis, who is so spectacular that even his labored footfalls seem meaningful).

The next lesson is not one available to our current president: Votes are for sale. At the start of the film, Lincoln is faced with trying to secure two kinds of votes: conservative Republicans and a smaller number of Democrats who have been voted out of office in the election of 1864 but who can still vote in the lame duck session. He employs a crew of political hacks who look like Mumford and Sons session men to offer Democrats plum postings after they’ve left office. This is how Lincoln gets a good share of the hard votes. Vote buying is largely unavailable to the modern president, certainly when it comes to influencing members of the opposite party. Remember how quickly Obama had to back off the Cornhusker Kickback, an attempt to sweeten the health care bill for Democrat Ben Nelson.* This points out an immediate caution for anyone trying to draw lessons from this film. A lot has changed. Lincoln’s careful strategy employed in this film could not have survived the first tweet.

The more useful skill a modern-day president could mimic is Lincoln’s careful management of his allies. He secures conservative Republican votes by stringing the lawmakers along. (This is a crucial presidential attribute also effectively used by FDR.) Lincoln’s fellow Republicans will vote for the 13th amendment if he promises to entertain peace entreaties from the South. Lincoln says he will do just that and sends  Francis Preston Blair to Richmond to meet with the Confederates. But if word leaks that any conversation with the South is underway, it will sap the energy for passing the amendment, which supporters hope will help bring an end to the war. In one telling scene, a couple petitioning the president say they are for the amendment, but when asked by Secretary of State Seward if they would be for the amendment if the war were over, they lose all interest. Throughout the film, Lincoln simultaneously pushes for the vote while stalling the approach of the Confederate representatives heading North to talk peace. He never quite lies to his allies, but he manages their intake of information so that they hear what they want to hear—and stay in line.

Many Democrats today find Obama’s manner too timid and accommodating, a charge the radical Republicans of Lincoln’s day leveled at their president. Their leader, Thaddeus Stevens, wants full rights for slaves. Lincoln, who is being mercilessly hammered by Democrats for his anti-slavery activism, wants Stevens to tone down his rhetoric—to take a pragmatic approach to passing this controversial amendment. Full rights for blacks might be the ultimate goal, but such hot rhetoric on the floor of the House will doom the vote because it will frighten off Democrats.

Lincoln is repeatedly blamed for being too deliberate and slow. Leading from behind, you might call it. But what Lincoln knew was that he could not go any faster than the public allowed him. He didn’t have pollsters, but at one point in the film, he puts on his coat to walk the streets for a “public opinion bath,” his term for his wanderings that put him in touch with people, so that he could know the country’s mind. Lincoln spent more days outside the White House than in it during his last year. Alas for our own pragmatic president, this is another approach that’s not readily available in the 21st century.

In the end, Lincoln wins over Stevens who, while debating on the floor of the House, refuses to be pushed into declaring his more radical private beliefs. He repeats again and again that he wants nothing more than equality for blacks “under the law.” It is an act of self-denial and lawyerly weaseling that infuriates his Democratic opposition but gives the newspapermen looking down from the gallery nothing incendiary to write. As a result, the vote coalition sticks together.

Lincoln has been heralded as a great civics lesson. It is a good but not great one, and not just because there’s sadly little inspiration for our own president to draw from the movie. Stevens’ act of self-denial makes you want to cheer, but the power dynamics and motivations of various parties are confusing and unexplained at times. At one point, when one of Lincoln’s allies in the House complains that he can’t get the votes the president thunders, “I am clothed in immense power—you will procure me these votes.” In the previous two hours of the movie Lincoln has been sweating every vote, but suddenly he’s acting like he’s Gandalf—as if a bold declaration will get him what he needs.

 The actual counting of votes is clear enough—we even see Mary Todd Lincoln’s tally sheet as she watches from the gallery. But we get no sense of the inner turmoil these lawmakers are going through. Why does the gentleman from Kentucky, to whom Lincoln has appealed, change his vote? In one of several comical vote-buying scenes, one of the political hacks is nearly shot by a Democratic lawmaker he’s trying to bribe. Members of the House get off some good lines as they forever yell at each other, and their play-acting and verbal sparring can feel removed from today’s debates only by the old-timey language. The film is trying to show the gap between Lincoln’s lofty ends and earthly means, but the debate over the amendment banning slavery should feel more weighty in the moment than today’s posturing about the fiscal cliff. Members wept after the amendment was passed, but there’s little in the film’s portrayal of the vote hunt that makes us want to weep, too.

By contrast, when, early in the movie, we see Lincoln lie down by the fire next to his sleeping son, you feel his weariness, and you ache for him. When his wife rages at the president for allowing their older boy to go to war, your shoulders tense with her rage. The personal dramas of a man who faced as much as Lincoln did are always going to outstrip the legislative fight, but when it comes to the vote, which consumes so much of the movie, in the end it often just feels like so much math.

Correction, Nov. 20, 2012: The article orginally and incorrectly referred to Sen. Ben Nelson as Bill Nelson.