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Tonight, Obama Meets Lincoln -- But Will He Listen?

11/15/2012 01:50 pm ET | Updated Jan 15, 2013

President Obama will be sitting down for a private screening of the extraordinary new movie Lincoln on Thursday night, and he will undoubtedly be mesmerized. But whether he internalizes its lesson is another story, and one yet to be written.

The movie, directed by Steven Spielberg, starring Daniel Day Lewis, with a screenplay by my friend Tony Kushner, accomplishes the rare feat of being both a towering movie for the ages and an urgent movie for the moment.

It creates such a complex, compelling and intimate portrait of our greatest and most consequential president that seeing it will indelibly change and add depth to how viewers think of the man who freed the slaves.

But Lincoln is also very much a movie about how a newly elected second-term president can and must use his immense power to force a fractious Congress to do the right thing.

Despite the movie's heft, I suspect it would have had a far less successful opening week if Mitt Romney had won the election. It would simply have been too depressing to watch, knowing that outside the movie theater, the nation had just picked a president best known for his lack of conviction, and on the wrong side of the civil rights battles of this era.

In the context of Obama's reelection, by contrast, the movie is just ever so much more emotionally compelling. For one, there is no denying the historic linkage between Lincoln and the first African-American president.

And then the movie finds Lincoln precisely at the same moment Obama finds himself now: newly reelected and stymied in his goals by a critical mass of irascible House members on the wrong side of history -- in Lincoln's case, Democrats crazed with racism, rather than Republicans in the thrall of the one percent.

The question is whether Lincoln will give up and compromise on his core values -- or fight with everything he's got. We all know the answer.

Lincoln's goal -- the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, forever abolishing slavery -- has no modern parallel. And yet if Obama wants to accomplish his goals -- creating jobs by rebuilding the country's infrastructure, addressing climate change, restoring fairness to the tax code -- he will have to find the votes in Congress. Or more accurately, he will have to fight for them.

In Lincoln, that fight isn't always pretty -- in fact, the president's team of corrupt and corrupting lobbyists provide the movie with much comic relief. But Lincoln made it clear that he as the president had power, would use it, and would win.

One episode in Obama's first term that weakly parallels the movie is the fight to establish universal healthcare. There, the White House was willing to make lots of extraordinary and arguably corrupt compromises to establish something the president thought was a moral obligation. But one can also argue that Obama ended up with something that fell short of what he set out to achieve. Lincoln, by contrast, was willing to cut deals and stifle the purists in his camp, but not at the cost of compromising his ultimate goal.

The most immediate challenge Obama faces now is whether to strike some sort of "grand bargain" to cut the deficit before the end of the year. But for Obama to prioritize deficit reduction over economic growth would be equivalent to Lincoln prioritizing the return of the Southern states to the Union over abolishing slavery -- precisely what he refused to do. And just like Lincoln stalled the Confederate peace delegates, to use the war as leverage to pass his amendment, Obama should recognize that the so-called "fiscal cliff" is not a deadline, but rather leverage to achieve his goals of increased tax revenue and spending on projects that will stimulate economic growth.

The movie also includes an extraordinary disquisition on war powers -- I dare you to find that in any other blockbuster -- in which Lincoln acknowledges that when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he wasn't sure he had the legal authority, he just knew he had the ability. That's why he feels such a desperate need to root abolition in the Constitution. Similarly, Obama needs to bring his regime of extra-legal detention and targeted killings out into the open, and either end it or root it in law.

It's been 148 years since the events dramatized in Lincoln. Much has changed, but much is the same. The question now is how the tall, pensive man in the White House will use his power, and whether he will rise to the challenge of history.