As Steven Spielberg's film shows, Abraham Lincoln knew what it meant to live in the moment while remaining conscious of historic chance, realizing his limits as well as the possibilities of the oftentimes inelegant art of politics. History is often made this way, not in grand gestures of magnanimity or great speeches, but in smaller things that later become great. This is true of nearly every presidency, although history's lines seem to converge at times for some more than others. It appears we may once again be at such a point.
We remember Lincoln, of course, for saving the Union and ending slavery -- the Gettysburg Address, the Emancipation Proclamation, and, of course, the 13th Amendment. But there were many other things Lincoln did that are less remembered -- from the purchase of Alaska, the institution of paper money, the start of the Transcontinental Railroad, the Homestead Act, land-grant colleges, and even Thanksgiving Day. These shaped the course of the American journey in great, but not as grand, ways.
Lincoln also had the presence of mind to understand when a golden hour had arrived. Even though he fought the good fight by trading favors, arm-twisting, and just plain bullying, he left other matters to the less noticeable work of executive management. He knew what to pursue, when, and most of all how, patiently keeping his eye on the prize and taking into account while remaining unperturbed by the din of the call of friends, foes, and "frenemies" for other action or inaction.
It was this combination of characteristics -- the rare ability to be at once a great manager as well as a great leader -- that made him arguably the greatest of presidents.
Despite the attempts of his political enemies to curb enthusiasm with the distraction of drummed-up scandals, Barack Obama, in the wake of his election victory, is presented with his own "series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems." From fiscal re-balancing, foreign policy and peace and security, to tax and immigration reform, infrastructure, energy and climate change, from particularly now until the midterms in 2014, this president has a chance to advance the blessings of liberty for this and coming generations of Americans and many others.
Despite the narrow win, there are things that bode well for Obama. The U.S. economy -- barring a meltdown from across the Atlantic, an implosion of growth across the Pacific, or the "fiscal cliff" at home -- is on the upswing, and given its improving energy and manufacturing portfolios, is poised to return to its former competitiveness. As George Friedman of STRATFOR puts it:
All competing powers have problems more severe than the United States... A world with declining threats and decreasing dependence gives the United States breathing room. It is the breathing space that is most important. The United States needs to regroup. It needs to put the "war on terror" into perspective and rethink domestic security. It needs to rethink its strategy for dealing with the world from its unique position and align its economy and military capabilities with a new definition of its interests... The logic of what it must do - selective engagement where the national interest is involved, with the least use of military force possible - is obvious.
Some things, like re-balancing guns and butter, will occur in any case -- it's really more a question of how well the national leadership manages it. Whether through sequestration or a fiscal deal, with the war in Afghanistan coming to a close and no existential threat on the horizon, military spending in the grand scheme of the government, is becoming a sideshow. "Either way," as Gordon Adams of Foreign Policy posits, "with reductions needed to get the whole package to line up with the existing or new spending targets... defense budgets continue to go down."
As a New York Times op-ed points out:
Budget discipline might finally force the Defense Department to make strategic choices and systemic reforms that are worth doing on the merits. Over the years, think tanks within the military and without have produced an immense, rich literature on how to make prudent sense out of austerity.
Beyond the extensive work of the Project on National Security Reform, among many examples of such prudent plans is a just-released Stimson Center report by a panel of foreign policy and defense experts that proposes reforms that go beyond the cuts either way. In addition to urging the country to "strongly resist being drawn into protracted land wars" and massive cuts in the nuclear arsenal, the group takes on the sacred cow of personnel spending, exhorting DoD to "implement long-standing proposals to utilize manpower more efficiently, to reform personnel compensation systems, and to streamline the system used to acquire equipment, goods and services."
"By taking these steps," it concludes, "the United States can free up resources to devote to defense capabilities that better contribute to U.S. national security."
The other thing that bodes well is Obama's experience over the last four years in the messy business of partisan deal-making and collaboration with the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue, the Affordable Care Act being the most prominent example. For at least the next couple of years, he is in a much better position -- and somewhat wiser now -- in dealing with Congress. As the campaign showed, Obama has the knack of seizing his chances and making good of them. He also knows how to galvanize support through a careful "ground game" and the blogosphere, rather than relying mostly on traditional mainstream media.
Less obvious, perhaps, is the president's use of his unilateral powers to either side-step Congress or put pressure on them. This "extraconstitutional arms race of sorts" could be "a new normal that habitually circumvents the legislative process," ushering in a new way that Washington works.
Depending on how it plays out, this may be a good thing. As Leon Fuerth's widely-endorsed call for practical upgrades in the executive branch so the U.S. can get ahead of events or increasingly risk being overtaken by them, the Obama administration can get Washington to perform like Wayne Gretsky played hockey. Anticipatory Governance is a way to upgrade "legacy systems of management to meet today's unique brand of accelerating and complex challenges" through policy based on foresight, networked, mission-based management and budgeting, and feedback to monitor and adjust policy as things develop. By dragging his branch out of the 20th century, Obama could perhaps pressure Congress to drag theirs out of the 19th century. And if the government could work a little less fecklessly, then the public's disenchantment with it -- and politics in general -- could likewise see a turning point.
It is exactly these kinds of opportunities for change, less spectacular than those played out on the grand stage of the media in the coming months that will as much define Obama's legacy as the big-ticket punches. The other golden hours will be those many of us hardly notice.
As one of Lincoln's greatest admirers, the current resident of the White House -- and those who support him -- must likewise appreciate that great visions are not always fulfilled by grand acts. There will be some things that can and should be fixed, while others will have to await their time. Obama will have to choose wisely, because his chances will be narrow and his political capital is limited -- unless we afford him more. He's got plenty to work on, but also plenty to work with.
And we, in turn, must manage our expectations, for both golden hours are ours more than his.