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Can Lincoln's playbook help Obama in the years ahead?

  • Story Highlights
  • Barack Obama often cited Abraham Lincoln in campaign speeches
  • There are several similarities between the two politicians
  • Historians say Obama can use Lincoln's strategies to help him lead the country
  • One historian cautions Americans to "calm down" about comparisons
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By Ed Hornick
CNN
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The similarities are eerie.

Both Abraham Lincoln and President-elect Barack Obama were not from Illinois but became two of the state's top politicians.

They were both criticized for being too inexperienced to become president of the United States.

Both were raised by women other than their mothers (Lincoln by his stepmother and Obama by his grandmother) and later visited the women before their respective inaugurations.

Lincoln, a Republican, and Obama, a Democrat, will be noted as relatively young presidents: Lincoln was 51 when he took office. Obama will be 47.

The two tall and lanky politicians also wrote best-selling books before becoming president.

Historians and political pundits have pointed out that both Lincoln and Obama share the gift of eloquence, speechwriting and oration.

Lincoln historian and author Ronald White said that both had a "tremendous trust in words and the power of language."

"And I think today, we come with a real kind of cynicism. ... It's only words. And yet I think underneath the words are the public's perception of looking for someone with integrity and authenticity and not someone simply playing a role," White said.

White, author of the upcoming book "A. Lincoln: A Biography," has lectured on Lincoln at the White House and the Library of Congress.

"Both of them rose, in a sense, beyond their inexperience and in spite of their relative youth, the wings of their ability to use public language," he added.

But as the Obama transition team continues to assemble the new administration, the question remains: Can the president-elect help heal a sharply divided nation by using a page out of Lincoln's political playbook?

After all, Lincoln, the 16th president, helped save the union during the Civil War and later emancipated the slaves.

In a letter to the residents of Illinois as he resigned from his U.S. Senate seat November 16, Obama quoted Lincoln: "I ask for your support, your prayers, and for us to 'confidently hope that all will yet be well.' "

And at his presidential acceptance speech in Chicago, Illinois, on November 4, Obama used Lincoln as a model for his vision.

"As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours, 'We are not enemies but friends. ... Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection,' " Obama said.

Even the theme of Obama's inauguration in January is adopted from a line in Lincoln's Gettysburg Address: "A New Birth of Freedom."

But Columbia University history professor Eric Foner, also a Lincoln scholar, said people should take a step back from the comparisons.

"Lincoln is a great man, and people should learn from him. But I think, as a historian, people ought to calm down a little about these comparisons," he said. "They are entirely different situations, worlds, political systems. There aren't I think a lot of exact direct lessons one can or should necessarily try to learn from Lincoln."

Foner, author of the new book "Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World," said Lincoln has become something of a model for politicians on both sides of the aisle.

"Lincoln is a Rorschach test. Everybody finds themselves in Lincoln. Everybody finds what they want to find in Lincoln. There are dozens of Lincolns out there. So saying 'I'm reading Lincoln or modeling myself on Lincoln' doesn't really tell us a heck of a lot."

But don't tell that to Obama.

In a recent CBS interview, Obama said he's been spending a lot of time reading up on Lincoln, a further sign that he may try to channel the former president's successes. Obama said he was reading presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's 2005 book "Team of Rivals," which focuses on Lincoln's Cabinet.

"There is a wisdom there and a humility about his approach to government, even before he was president, that I just find very helpful," he told "60 Minutes" correspondent Steve Kroft.

When asked whether he would be willing to put political enemies in his Cabinet, Obama responded, "Well, I tell you what, I find him a very wise man."

Lincoln, after all, put a political rival in his administration: fellow Republican and New York Sen. William Seward. He fought a hard campaign against Lincoln, often using his experience as a reason why he should win the party's nomination over the Illinois politician. Seward later lost the vote.

The same held true for Obama's former primary rival Sen. Hillary Clinton, who is being discussed now as a potential pick for secretary of state.

Like Seward, Clinton is a senator from New York and fought a long, bruising primary battle, albeit a Democratic one. Video Watch analysts weigh in on Clinton's future »

But as Obama considers Clinton and even Republicans for the Cabinet, the use of a Lincoln playbook may not help.

"A lot of what has been said as a historian strikes me as a little misguided. [Obama], for example, is modeling himself after Lincoln by [possibly] putting Hillary Clinton in the secretary of state," Forner said.

"But, by the way, that was typical in the 19th century. Most presidents took a major figure of their own political party, often someone who wanted the job himself, and made him secretary of state. That was a fairly conventional thing to do."

White said Lincoln's strategy was to surround himself with people who were equally strong.

"And I think one of the comparisons to recent presidents is that they often have put in people from their own states who often are 'yes people' to them. Therefore, they have not been given the benefit of strong contending points of view," he added.

So would a team of rivals work today?

"I think this is the great question. Would it be possible? I hope it is. I think it's a more difficult task today," White said.

"The Civil War also helped kind of say, 'we have to have kind of a unity government.' This is a big challenge. I hope [Obama] can do it. I'm not sure he can."

Harold Holzer, one of the country's leading authorities on Lincoln and the Civil War, said the state of the nation today may be a major barrier to putting in place Lincoln's playbook.

"Sen. Obama could have never contemplated a state leaving the country in reaction to his election, which was pretty rough. Lincoln could have never imagined nuclear war, the kind of foreign challenges that occur," Holzer said.

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Holzer's new book, "Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860-1861," examines the period between his election and inauguration.

But Holzer said that although the nation's challenges may be different, "leadership comes not from experience alone or sometimes not from experience at all. It comes from a gravitas and self-deprecation and understanding of other people. It's going to be a very interesting period."

All About Barack ObamaAbraham LincolnHillary Clinton

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