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Lawrence Goodwyn: The Great Predicament Facing Obama

An interview with legendary historian Lawrence Goodwyn on Obama, the larger currents in our political life, and the possibility of a rebirth in our democratic culture.

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Lincoln possessed extraordinary patience, moving as events permitted. Indeed, he was not above pushing events a little, knowing that the momentum thus achieved should help move things along for him. He campaigned in 1860 to preserve the union, not to end slavery. When secession threatened, he avoided aggressive displays of force but asked the states to provide troops to protect federal property in threatened areas. When the war came, he had the seasoned leader's sense of the small but vital difference between conduct that was "strong" and conduct that was mere sabre-rattling bravado. In his presidential study, he privately crafted tentative versions of emancipation documents while awaiting a Union victory over Lee's army.

Lincoln understood enough about politics to understand that adding at least a small measure of military meaning to words was essential to making such words meaningful. When, after the quasi "victory" at Antietam, no one in his cabinet supported Lincoln's careful draft of an Emancipation Proclamation, he called for a vote anyway, cast the sole "aye" ballot, and calmly informed his fellow voters that "the ayes have it." Sometimes, as they say, a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do.

Thirteen months later, after many defeats and, finally, a transcendent victory at Gettysburg, Lincoln was able to be precise, at long last and in his first two sentences, about what the war was about: "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure."

Lincoln learned that when he spoke clearly, it was easier to talk to the people in the population than to the entrenched functionaries of the nation's political and military communities. He had a hell of time with his generals, and, early on, with his abolitionist supporters, and most of all with the recalcitrant spear-carriers for the opposition party. He kept working at it, but as an old Southern sharecropper once said, before he died in the 1970s, "I looks around the world and I sees that the colored races of people is coming up, coming up. And that's good, that's good. But it takes many a trip to the river to get clean."

It looks like you may be getting around to our president.

Goodwyn: I am. Though you may detect some similarities with Lincoln, Barack Obama is even harder to get a fix on than Lincoln has been. But I have seen enough to know that those are not softballs Obama is throwing. Every card-carrying white supremacist in the Republican Party knows that.

In any case, Obama is, by my lights, well along in learning what presidents have to learn to avoid get run over by the accumulated hierarchies of past generations. Obama now possesses impressive proof, I presume, that a national institution like the Senate does not contain dynamics remotely akin to those at work in a contest for a college law review. At the White House, Obama similarly misread the numerous popular downsides linked to the experiential limitations of an elite streetfighter like Larry Summers. It is not that the fellow himself is toxic, which he demonstrably was; the operative political point is that his sense of the possible was toxic far beyond the gaze afforded by his narrowly provincial sensibility.

These missteps handed Republican ad men the opening to the faux populism through which corporate money now distracts a bleeding population from its anger at its betrayal by George Bush and Dick Cheney. This alienation extends, lest we forget, to that inept group of operators who called themselves "neo-conservatives." Obama is going to have to deal with those thugs down the road.

The day after the coming Republican victory of 2010, the propagandists of the most expensive experiment in mass manipulation in American history will be celebrating their corporate-bought windfall. Fox News will hail the triumph of traditional values.

The day after that, GOP functionaries will notice that the strong young couple residing in the White House has survived the hurricane and is ready to return to work with undiminished resolve. The GOP will also learn that the Democratic Party, its exasperation thoroughly expended, has set about to renew itself. It is a very big party that is determined to get bigger.

Across America -- "out there" as is sometimes said in Washington -- are 15 million unemployed people who have been absolutely betrayed, as well as upwards of two million (and counting) erstwhile homeowners whose homes are foreclosed.

They will also discover an uncontained bag of apprehensive Tea Partiers and bystanding conservative onlookers who are worried about how much, if at all, they can trust Karl Rove, Trent Lott, Tom DeLay, Jim DeMint and all the other Southern boys whose name, this time, is not Jefferson Davis or John Wilkes Booth.

Strap on your seat belts, Jan. The election in 2012 is going to define the meaning of the American idea.