The cannon salvo that thundered over Springfield, Ill., at sunrise on Nov. 6, 1860, signaled not the start of a battle, but the end of the bitter, raucous six-month-long campaign for the presidency of the United States. Election Day was finally dawning. Metaphorically, the same could have been true of the nearly two-year campaign for president that ended on Tuesday.
Regardless of whom you supported, Tuesday's election was a unique one, much like the election of another Illinois lawyer, almost 150 years ago. Indeed, Barack Obama has become an instant historical figure, and not solely because of race. Anyone who has followed the campaign knows that Obama's background and road to the presidency represents a vast departure from his historical predecessors. And, so too, does the expectations that he has raised.
The next 77 days will be crucial ones for the president-elect. During his speeches in the final week of the campaign, Obama told his supporters that together "we will change this country. We will change the world." Those are some pretty big promises. When a president takes office with expectations as high as those for Obama, the chances for a post-election letdown are staggering.
Preparing for the two courses I will teach next semester on Abraham Lincoln, it occurred to me how high expectations were for Lincoln during his president-elect period. On his train ride from Springfield to Washington, D.C., thousands of Americans flocked to the train when it stopped as well as to the hotel rooms where he stayed, looking for answers to the very trying times in which they lived. Feeling uncertain about their future and extremely frustrated with their immediate past and the extremely unpopular president who preceded Lincoln, these Americans sought comfort and looked for a new beginning.
I think that Obama is facing a similar situation. In his moving victory speech on Tuesday night, Obama invoked the name and words of Abraham Lincoln no fewer than four times. While the nation is not literally coming apart at the seams, it is nonetheless at a divisive crossroads. The economy is in serious trouble, the nation is entwined in two foreign wars, and with the most unpopular lame-duck president in recorded poll history, there is a deep reservoir of anger and of distrust of government and politics in general. As in 1860, there is a palatable degree of angst throughout the country.
People will now crowd to Obama, perhaps not on the train platform or in his hotel room, but they will approach him with the same expectations as they did Lincoln. He ran as an outsider, an alternative to the norm. So, too, did Lincoln. He said he was different, and people now will expect him to be different as they expected Lincoln to be different. And they probably will maintain unrealistic expectations of success as they did with Lincoln.
Lincoln was unknown, certainly in the East, with an antislavery platform and a brand new political party. His supporters were practically giddy with his election, as the Republican Party was a mere 5 years old. They believed, as the Obama faithful believe, that a new day was dawning.
Even Lincoln's critics and skeptics wanted him to somehow repair the secession crisis quickly and decisively. They wanted Lincoln to lead them out of the quagmire in which the nation found itself by virtue of the mistakes of his predecessor. Sound familiar?
But, Lincoln didn't, and couldn't, fix the problem immediately. And, the electorate is notoriously fickle and without patience. Lincoln's inability to immediately resolve the crisis lead to an inevitable letdown and bitter, even violent, denunciations.
Obama might encounter some of the same. He will not be able to fix the economy overnight, nor will he be able to rid the country of its nightmarish fear of the threat of terrorism. The political culture in Washington will not be remade suddenly. The influence peddling of lobbyists will not be curtailed, nor will the tenuous nature of Social Security, public education or health care be quickly repaired with the wave of a magic wand. Obama will not be able to fix all of these things at once. No one could.
Will the nation be any more indulgent of a one-term senator than they were of a one-term congressman? What will happen when unrealistic expectations collide with messy realities?
During the Civil War, people reacted to this by making Lincoln a polarizing figure. As much as he is revered today as we approach his 200th birthday, in his own time, he was controversial and even hated. People expected a quick fix from the man who campaigned as an outsider, and they simply didn't get it.
Obama could very well end up becoming a polarizing figure as well, and not even by his own doing. Unrealistic popular expectations tend to do that to a historical figure. Obama would never do this intentionally; but, neither did Lincoln who once remarked "how odd it was" that he was involved in "so many controversial and overheated political contests," given how "moderate" he was.
Someday, it is very possible that Obama will feel the same way.