Springfield, Ill. Summoning the pride of a nation, President Barack Obama paid fond tribute Thursday to Abraham Lincoln by challenging people to embrace his vision of a collective union and reject a “knee-jerk disdain for government.”
“He recognized that while each of us must do our part, work as hard as we can and be as responsible as we can — in the end, there are certain things we cannot do on our own,” Obama said of Lincoln at a celebration of the revered president’s 200th birthday.
“There are certain things we can only do together,” Obama said. “There are certain things only a union can do.”
Here in the place that Lincoln called home, and from where Obama launched his presidential bid, the new president’s speech capped his third event honoring Lincoln’s bicentennial.
It was a whirlwind day for Obama. He squeezed in economic comments in East Peoria, Ill., and coped with the abrupt withdrawal of another commerce secretary nominee.
The stories of Obama and Lincoln have become entwined by history, geography and symbolism. Their paths are viewed as not just their own, but the country’s as well — a lineage from the man who freed the slaves to the first black president in U.S. history.
Obama said Lincoln understood that self-reliance was at the core of American life. But Obama said individual liberty is “served, not negated, by a recognition of the common good.”
The pendulum, Obama said, has swung too far toward a philosophy that says government is the problem — a notion that it should be dismantled, with tax breaks for the wealthy that might eventually help out everyone.
“Such knee-jerk disdain for government — this constant rejection of any common endeavor — cannot rebuild our levees or our roads or our bridges,” Obama said. His list of collective examples went on: better schools, modern health care, an economy built on clean energy.
“Only a nation can do these things,” Obama said. “Only by coming together, all of us, and expressing that sense of shared sacrifice and responsibility … can we do the work that must be done in this country. That is the very definition of being American.”
Earlier Thursday, back in Washington, Obama celebrated Lincoln’s resolve at a ceremony in the stately Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. And he spent Wednesday evening at a performance at the newly renovated Ford’s Theatre, where Lincoln was assassinated in 1865.
Like Lincoln, Obama is a skinny lawyer who rose from obscurity and served briefly in the Illinois legislature before leaping to national office at a time of burgeoning crisis.
Still, the White House is mindful to limit the comparison, whatever the parallels.
Lincoln is a monumental figure who fought to preserve the union, presided over the enormously costly Civil War and signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
Obama has been president for less than a month.
“This president isn’t seeking to compare himself with I think what many believe is one of the two or three greatest presidents that this country’s ever had,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said.
That Obama often operates in Lincoln’s shadow is largely a matter of choice. He admires the 16th president, reads his language, quotes his speeches and draws on him for inspiration.