7.24.2014

Where Lincoln's Effectiveness Came From

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Given that he announced his candidacy in Springfield and read "Team of Rivals" while on the campaign trail, it's clear Barack Obama saw Abraham Lincoln as his presidential role model.  The two men have a lot in common, and not just because they are tall and skinny and have Illinois ties.  Both entered office as relative lightweights but rhetorical powerhouses, and believed in the power of the rightness of their ideas to win the day. 

But, being almost through "Team of Rivals" myself, I see one point of departure.  Lincoln, while not an extreme gadfly, loved to socialize, joke, and tell stories.  And, combined with a deep sense of humility as well as insight into the human character, it considerably increased his influence over and effect on people.

Lincoln was particularly mindful of and gracious towards the people around him.  If anyone felt he had wrong them, even if it wasn't intentional or there was no merit to the perceived slight, Lincoln went out of his way to reconcile with that person.  He made people feel good about themselves, and was always ready to deflect any praise his way while lavishing it on others.  He could draw a hard line, to be sure, but he was ever ready to accommodate, to butter up, and to give the benefit of the doubt.  And he never doubted his intelligence or his rightness, but he was quick to make fun of himself and his humble upbringing.

Obama, on the other hand, does not seem to enjoy the DC game.  It's hard to fault a man for being loyal to his family to want to eat dinner with them every night, or for being introverted enough to prefer solitary reading and preparation over socializing.  But pressing the flesh and spending time rubbing elbows is how you build relationships, and relationships is how things get done.

Maybe you think it's the Republican obstructionists who have kept Obama from achieving his agendas, and maybe you're right.  But maybe it's something more mundane: he didn't take the time, and didn't seem to want to take the time, to be with people, crack jokes with them, and be thoughtful about how to make them look good (even at the expense of taking a dig at himself).

Maybe you think I'm naive, that that might have worked in Lincoln's days but today's DC is far too partisan and cynical for wise cracks and aw-shucks shrugs to make things happen.  And maybe I am.  But maybe you're being naive if you don't think that lawmakers and other leaders don't care about having time with the President, being complimented by the President, and having the President deprecate himself in order to share honors with others.

Abraham Lincoln was a righteous person with an underrated sense of timing and savvy.  But he was also a socially available, humble, and gracious human being.  Thanks to "Team of Rivals," I am newly aware of the importance of the latter traits in getting things done.  I hope that Barack Obama will learn that soon too.
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