How the Obama and Lincoln Presidencies Were Similar

Was Barack Obama a Modern Day Abe Lincoln?

The Obama Inaugural Celebration At The Lincoln Memorial

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, President Barack Obama made no secret of his admiration for Abraham Lincoln. The 44th president launched his first presidential campaign in Lincoln's hometown and cited the nation's 16th president numerous times during his two terms in office. With the exception of a beard, which most modern politicians don't wear, and the college degree, Obama and Lincoln have drawn numerous comparisons by historians.

Many political junkies took note that when he announced his first presidential campaign, Obama spoke from the steps of the Old Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois, the site of Abraham Lincoln's famous "house divided" speech. And they noted that Obama mentioned Lincoln several times during that 2007 speech, including in these lines:

"Each and every time, a new generation has risen up and done what's needed to be done. Today we are called once more - and it is time for our generation to answer that call. For that is our unyielding faith - that in the face of impossible odds, people who love their country can change it. That's what Abraham Lincoln understood. He had his doubts. He had his defeats. He had his setbacks. But through his will and his words, he moved a nation and helped free a people."

Then when he was elected, Obama took a train to Washington, just as Lincoln did.

Lincoln as a Role Model

Obama also was forced to deflect questions about his lack of national experience, a criticism Lincoln, too, had to fend off. Obama has said he considers Lincoln a role model for the way he handled his critics. "There is a wisdom there and a humility about his approach to government, even before he was president, that I just find very helpful," Obama told CBS's 60 Minutes a short time after winning his first election in 2008.

​So how alike are Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln? Here are five important traits the two presidents shared.

Obama and Lincoln Were Illinois Transplants

President Barack Obama
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News/Getty Images

This, of course, is the most obvious connection between Obama and Lincoln. Both men adopted Illinois as their home state, but only one did it as an adult.
Lincoln was born in Kentucky in February of 1809. His family moved to Indiana when he was 8 years old, and later his family moved to Illinois. He stayed in Illinois as an adult, marrying and raising a family.

Obama was born in Hawaii in August of 1961. His mother moved to Indonesia with his step-father, where he lived from age 5 to 10. He then returned to Hawaii to live with his grandparents. He moved to Illinois in 1985 and returned to Illinois after obtaining a law degree from Harvard.

Obama and Lincoln Were Skilled Orators

Portrait Of Abraham Lincoln

Stock Montage/Getty Images 

Both Obama and Lincoln were thrust into the spotlight following major speeches.

We know Lincoln's rhetorical prowess as much from the Lincoln-Douglas debates as from the Gettysburg Address. We also know that Lincoln wrote his speeches, by hand, and usually delivered the speech as written.

On the other hand, Obama, who has invoked Lincoln in almost every major speech he has given, has a speechwriter. His name is Jon Favreau, and he is very familiar with Lincoln. Favreau writes draft speeches for Obama.

Obama and Lincoln Endured a Divided America

Peaceful protestor
Peaceful protestors set a good example of how to disagree respectfully. Tim Whitby/Getty Images News

When Lincoln was elected in November of 1860, the country was divided over the issue of slavery. In December of 1860, South Carolina seceded from the Union. By February of 1861, six additional southern states had seceded. Lincoln was sworn in as president in March 1861.

When Obama began running for president, a majority of Americans opposed the war in Iraq as well as the performance of then-President George W. Bush.

Obama and Lincoln Knew How to Debate With Civility

Barack Obama Laughs
President Barack Obama laughs while delivering remarks on the economy in 2013. John W. Adkisson/Getty Images News

Both Obama and Lincoln had the intelligence and verbal skills to skewer opponents, but they chose instead to stay about the mudslinging and personal attacks.

"Obama has learned from Lincoln, and what he's learned is how to hold a civil debate without giving up your main position, meaning you don't have to put your finger in your enemy's face and scold him. You can have dignity and composure and still win an argument," Rice University History Professor Douglas Brinkley told CBS News.

Obama and Lincoln Both Chose a 'Team of Rivals' for Their Administration

Carole Simpson with Hillary Clinton
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News

There's an old saying that goes, Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer.

Many Washington insiders were stunned when Barack Obama chose his 2008 Democratic primary rival Hillary Clinton to be secretary of State in his administration, especially considering the race had become personal and quite nasty. But it was a move right out of Lincoln's playbook, as historian Doris Kearns Goodwin writes in her 2005 book Team of Rivals.

"As the United States splintered toward civil war, the 16th president assembled the most unusual administration in history, bringing together his disgruntled opponents and displaying what Goodwin calls a profound self-awareness and political genius," wrote The Washington Post's Philip Rucker.

Edited by Tom Murse

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Gill, Kathy. "How the Obama and Lincoln Presidencies Were Similar." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Gill, Kathy. (2023, April 5). How the Obama and Lincoln Presidencies Were Similar. Retrieved from Gill, Kathy. "How the Obama and Lincoln Presidencies Were Similar." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).