First he settled on following the tail leg of Lincoln’s whistle stop tour to the 1861 inauguration, deciding to travel by train from Philadelphia to Washington January 17, 2009. Now Barack Obama will swear his allegiance to the Constitution on a bible once owned by the sixteenth president, the Presidential Inaugural Committee announced yesterday.
Owning to a combination of Obama’s personal admiration for his predecessor and a knack for political showmanship, the 2009 inauguration will be full of nods to Lincoln. True the men have something in common. Both were adopted sons of Illinois who began their careers in Illinois state politics. Both were long shot candidates, political outsiders often ridiculed for their backgrounds, appearances and lack of the traditional presidential trappings. But much of the Lincoln-Obama parallel results from circumstance and shrewd stagecraft.
Obama has chosen to arrive at his inauguration on a train from Philadelphia, after a stop in Baltimore, as Lincoln did in 1861. Obama will take the oath of office with his hand on Lincoln’s bible. During Obama’s swearing in on the west steps of the US Capitol he will look across the National Mall to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where Martin Luther King gave the most important speech of the civil rights era forty-five years ago.
If any theme has predominance in Obama’s nascent presidency it is reconciliation. He has stocked his cabinet, as Lincoln did, with rivals. He has reached across party lines, inviting prominent Republicans to join his cohort. In the selection of Rick Warren to give the inaugural invocation, Obama showed that embracing the evangelical right at least symbolically was worth alienating an important and influential part of the left.
The inauguration is our first glimpse at what the Obama presidency will be like, apart from the bluster and promise of the primary and general elections. It is the first fruit of Obama policy. In the choice of Lincoln as a symbol and a role model, Obama promises to follow ideals rather than political expediencies. Hopefully he can live up to that promise.