The Obama Watch

Obama’s Gettysburg Address?

Must we continue to set the bar too low?

By 12.20.12

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Big-time American opinion makers have again been exposed as the sentimentalists that so many of them are. Their coddling of our current president does not even rise to the level of the backhanded compliment by which George Bailey was accused of “playing nursemaid to a bunch of garlic eaters.” Hyperbole from Paula Broadwell about David Petraeus makes more sense than the way that presidential biographer David Maraniss hailed a 1,600-word mixture of sermon, warning, straw man, and prescription from President Obama as a speech on par with the Gettysburg Address. Columnist Georgie Ann Geyer had similarly fulsome praise for the man whose scripted condolences in the aftermath of a mass shooting had unexpectedly transformed him into “a president one could believe in.” Even Geyer’s embarrassing tongue bath of a column was just an appetizer: Time magazine editors declared Barack Obama “person of the year” for 2012.

As far as pundits like these are concerned, our president is not the best-known beneficiary of the “new America.” Instead, he is -- by acclamation, if not actual accomplishment -- its architect. Their admiration for his labor is such that most of them have already forgotten that the “new America” was here even before Mr. Obama parlayed an Ivy League education and a habit of voting “present” into a seat on Air Force One.

It’s time to correct the record before it hardens into history. Abraham Lincoln had more flaws as a chief executive than our reigning mythology ascribes to him, but what Lincoln said in Gettysburg, PA on November 19, 1863 still resonates in ways that Barack Obama and his speechwriters can only aspire to, because the Gettysburg Address had something long since forgotten by our celebrity-saturated culture: humility.

There is a profound difference between hectoring an audience and empathizing with an audience, and yet it is a difference that can only be recognized by humble people. From President Obama’s big moment, we got rhetorical questions about national failure and a lecture about what we can’t tolerate anymore, as though we were sanguine about massacres until a community organizer known for missing the significance of the annual Right to Life march in Washington, D.C. came along to show us the error of our ways.

From President Lincoln’s big moment, we got recognition of our mortal limits and inspiration to keep striving for freedom and self-government in spite of those limits.

There is a great gulf between “We must change” and “We cannot dedicate -- We cannot consecrate -- We cannot hallow -- this ground.” President Obama often tries for the mountaintop of the transcendent, but the ideology in which he was raised and with which he is comfortable keeps him from rising above the foothills of the circumstantial. Talk show host Mark Levin found bias even in the events to which the president alluded while speaking last week in Connecticut, because President Obama’s count of the mass shootings on his watch ignored the shooting at Fort Hood, Texas, in November of 2009. Levin is right. Thirteen people were killed that day, but because death at schools seems more tragic than death at army bases, and because everything for progressives is about circumstance, Fort Hood was flushed down the memory hole.

Ironically, machinations like that work ultimately to the disadvantage of our current president: When your career is built on the premise that every playing field needs to be leveled for the sake of “fairness,” the muscles needed for mountain climbing tend to atrophy. Soft socialism is a comfy pillow but a rotten ladder, and no amount of cheerleading obscures the difference between prose and poetry, or the difference between scriptural cadences woven seamlessly into a speech and scripture sprinkled like cheap Parmesan over favorite policies.

Abraham Lincoln asked his audience to take increased devotion to the cause for which the honored dead at Gettysburg had given “the last full measure of devotion.” Barack Obama told the people of Newtown that they were not alone, and worked a subtle plug for early childhood education into his remarks (“…this job of keeping our children safe and teaching them well is something we can only do together, with the help of friends and neighbors, the help of a community and the help of a nation”). Three days later and back in Washington, D.C. but hoping to cajole alleged opponents into making stupid mistakes, President Obama cited the massacre in Connecticut as an event that should “give us some perspective” -- not on good and evil or mortality and suffering, but on federal tax policy.

There are no words for callous cluelessness of such Olympian proportions, although “George, you’re worth more dead than alive” once came close to capturing that thought. We are too often encouraged to settle for or mislabel mediocrity. Fortunately, the seasons of Advent and Christmas offer blessed relief from despair over such ugliness, and we may like the Magi in the canon of Christian scriptures return to our country by another way.

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About the Author

Patrick O'Hannigan is a writer in North Carolina.