Sample from Lincoln and Obama
By Gene Griessman, PhD
LINCOLN AND OBAMA AS PRESIDENTS
policy is to a government what a creed is to a church, what an agenda is to a meeting, what a contract is to a business. A policy is a vision, a core belief, a guideline, a set of priorities, a stated plan of action, a declaration of intent.
“Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.’’
– Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., US Supreme Court Justice
No American has ever thought more deeply about the nature of government that James Madison, who is sometimes called the Father of the Constitution, and the Father of the Bill of Rights. He and Alexander Hamilton and John Jay wrote a series of 85 newspaper articles in support of the Constitution—articles that became known as the Federalist Papers. Madison became the fourth president of the United States.
And what did this deeply knowledgeable American say is absolutely essential to our government? Taxes.
Here are James Madison’s words: “The power of taxing people and their property is essential to the very existence of government.”
Lincoln and Obama come to the same conclusion that Madison did. Any politician, who is not a charlatan, has to.
Lincoln needs money to prosecute the war, lots of it. It would be unthinkable for Lincoln to consider signing anything remotely like lobbyist Grover Norquist’s no-tax-increase pledge, a lifetime pledge that virtually every Republican member of Congress has signed. A pledge that puts their brains into a kind of blind trust.
He asks Salmon Chase, his secretary of treasury, to find a way to raise funds. The first federal income tax in American history is initiated. It is a federal tax, it is collected at the income source as a withholding tax, and it is graduated or progressive; that is, the wealthy pay a higher percentage than those who make less. It is not a flat tax.
Three decades later, in 1895, the Supreme Court rules the federal income tax is unconstitutional. It is reinstated by the 16th Amendment, which is ratified in 1913: “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.”
Obama has a war to pay for. Actually two wars, which were begun on the watch of George W. Bush. One in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. The wars are enormously expensive. About three trillion dollars for the Iraq War alone. Nobody will ever know for sure, because much of the funding is for secret operations. And all along, the wars have not been paid for. Incredibly, much of the cost of the wars has been off the books.
The bills come due on Obama’s watch, and members of Congress who once ardently supported the Iraq War have morphed into fiscal conservatives who now profess to be deeply concerned about the federal deficit.
The no-tax movement is at full stride. The carnage is everywhere. Cities are going into bankruptcy, slashing services, defaulting on pension plans, not paying creditors. School teachers are being fired at a time when the number of students is increasing. Is no one connecting the dots?
A computer expert tells me taxation is government theft. He uses the Internet, which was created at state universities and government research organizations, is dependent on a cell phone that gets its signal off a government-launched satellite, he attended public schools and is a graduate of a state university, he uses a public library, does his banking at a FDIC-insured bank, travels on the Interstate, loves our national parks, and his elderly parents are on Social Security—but does not see the contradiction.
The Tea Party comes into existence during the Obama administration. To be precise, the very first tea party was not a protest against taxation. It was a protest against taxation without representation. Americans today have representation at every level. When I explain this to a woman who invites me to participate in one of the first Tea Party rallies in Jacksonville, Florida, she politely brushes it aside. “We are not that historical,” she says. “It’s just a name.”
Every American president, Democrat or Republican, has understood that taxation is essential to sound government.
Another Roosevelt, he too of wealth and privilege, understood that the nation during the Great Depression faced two choices—violent revolution or peaceful reform. He chose reform. Many historians say the reforms of the 1930s saved American capitalism.
Yet FDR is called a socialist, a radical, a Communist. Rush Limbaugh—the man who many say has more power over the Republican Party than any other individual—has stated on the air that he lives for the day when everything FDR did will be undone.
Obama pushes reform. His focus is on health care for some thirty million Americans—10 percent of the people—who depend upon the charity of emergency rooms when they get hurt or sick.
Obama is called the same names that FDR was called.
One of the biggest challenges Obama faces is the Bush tax cuts. They are called the Bush tax cuts because George W. Bush, who inherited a huge surplus from Bill Clinton’s administration, successfully persuaded Congress to cut taxes.
Members of Congress know how difficult it is to raise taxes once you cut them. So Congress at the time built in an automatic expiration. The tax cuts would automatically expire without anybody having to vote. A future Congress could just let the tax cuts expire, and when they did, taxes would rise slightly to what they were during the Clinton administration, which, incidentally, was a prosperous time in American history.
Obama is willing to let the Bush tax cuts expire for the richest Americans, who are doing very well. But he advocates keeping them at current levels for the poor and the middle class. He uses the word “share,” and the right wing pounces on the expression. It’s positive proof that Obama is a socialist.
Obama talks about a “balanced” approach, which means budget cuts and increased revenue. Obama doesn’t think Exxon Mobil really needs government help, because it’s been doing quite well. Indeed it has. Astonishingly well. In 2011, Exxon Mobil reported more net profits than any business anywhere, any time in the history of the world. Yet it and other big oil companies have enough support in Congress to save their government subsidy.
Domestic policy is difficult for most presidents, but foreign policy is one area in which a president has considerable latitude. But both Lincoln and Obama are careful, cautious, anything but reckless.
Several incidents occur during the Civil War that could lead to a second or third war—wars with Spain, France, and England.
Lincoln has to restrain his secretary of state, which is ironic because Seward is the well-traveled, worldly wise man. Lincoln is the un-traveled, small-town lawyer.
One incident in particular, the Trent Affair, brings the US and Great Britain to the brink. An American ship stops a British ship in international waters, and arrests and removes two high-ranking Confederate diplomats who are aboard.
Threatening messages are exchanged, Parliament is in an uproar, and war fever is up in America. Lincoln weighs the costs, and realizes war with Great Britain will result in the unthinkable—international recognition of the Confederacy. If Great Britain recognizes the Confederacy, France, Spain, and Russia are sure to follow. That will be a disaster.
Lincoln tells Seward to tone down his messages; says he doesn’t want “two wars on his hands at once.”
Some accuse Lincoln of not standing up for America. But war is averted.
As soon as Obama secures the nomination, he leaves for visits to Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, Israel and the West Bank, France, England and Germany. Friendships are begun. For instance, after dinner in Amman, Jordan, King Abdullah II personally takes Obama to the airport. It is one of many such friendly experiences.
Obama wins the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009. His critics call it preposterous. They say he hasn’t done anything. But Obama has done one thing. He has signaled that the go-it-alone foreign policy of the previous eight years is a thing of the past. And the rest of the world is heartened.
Leslie Gelb, former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, says no president has taken more personal control over foreign policy than Obama: “In other administrations, a lot of the decisions were made below the presidential level. But Obama shapes most policies. He takes pen to paper and writes decision papers…Obama always makes the calls on almost every subject, and with a degree of personal intensity.”
Some begin to speak of what they call the Obama Doctrine. One journalist writes, “Generally speaking, it is accepted that a central part of such a doctrine would emphasize negotiation and collaboration rather than confrontation and unilateralism in international affairs.”
The two presidents are strategic and successful in their use of military power.
Victories are slow in coming during the Civil War. There are devastating defeats during the first two years. And then slowly the tide begins to turn. Vicksburg and Gettysburg, Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge, Mobile Bay and Nashville. And just in time for the presidential election, there’s a stunning victory in Atlanta that turns everything around. The capture of Atlanta is followed by Sherman’s March to the Sea, which military leaders here and abroad still marvel at.
So many al-Qaeda leaders are killed that Stephen Colbert quips that the president, “rather than sending prisoners to Gitmo, is taking the high road by sending them to their maker.”
Obama ends the Iraq War, and Osama bin Laden is caught and killed in a daring raid deep inside Pakistan. The Libya campaign ends successfully, the result of a coalition of NATO powers. Obama’s critics lampoon the strategy as “leading from behind.”
Obama does not get much credit for Libya, but should. No American lives are lost, it’s a team victory for NATO, and the dictator behind the Lockerbie bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 is gone.
There is one result. Fewer critics call Obama soft on terrorism. And even fewer listen to them.
The drone strikes, the dramatic killing of bin Laden, the relentless pursuit of terrorist leaders, and the success in Libya make such criticisms sound silly to a lot of Americans.
Advocacy of Women’s Rights
Americans boast of exceptionalism, but England was crowning queens centuries ago, and it chose a woman as prime minister three decades ago. The disparity in the way American men and women are treated has not been lost on Lincoln and Obama.
Almost a century before the 19th Amendment is ratified, Lincoln advocates women’s suffrage. His support is muted, and oblique, and race-based, but it is there. When Lincoln is just 27, and a real novice at politics, he publishes his political views in a letter to the editor of The Sangamo Journal in Illinois. Here are Lincoln’s words: “I go for all sharing the privileges of the government, who assist in sharing its burthens (burdens). Consequently I go for admitting all whites to the rights of suffrage, who pay taxes or bear arms (by no means excluding females).” [Italics, mine.]
The very first act of Congress that Obama signs into law is a women’s issue law—the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act—which removes barriers that women face suing for equal pay. It is named for a woman who was denied the right to sue for equal pay because of an overly restrictive statute of limitations. In 2010, Obama tells an audience, “I didn’t run for president so that the dreams of our daughters could be deferred or denied.”
The Affordable Care Act prevents insurance companies from discriminating based on gender. Women will be able to receive preventive services without co-pays or deductibles. On August 1, 2012, approximately 47 million women become eligible for free access to mammograms, FDA-approved contraception techniques, HIV screening, and annual preventative health visits.
Mike Kelly, a Republican member of Congress, is not pleased by the new provisions. On national TV, Kelly says August 1, 2012 will live in infamy, comparing it to Pearl Harbor and 9/11.
Sympathy toward Immigrants
The American story is a tale of immigrants. In America’s great cities, there have always been sections of town where you will not hear a word of English. The first language they speak are Dutch, German, Yiddish, Italian, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Urdu, Korean, Amharic, Yoruba, Ibo and hundreds of other languages and dialects. But their children will learn the English language and American ways, and the process will continue. A Polish woman explains, the Germans tried to make Germans of us, and we remained Poles. The Americans do not care. We will soon become Americans.
Well, maybe. Not all Americans do not care, then or now. There are always some Americans who want to force the process, make it hard on the newcomer. In August 2012, the House of Representatives conducts a hearing on making English the official language of the United States, making it illegal to do business with the government in other languages. Its chances of becoming law are zero, but its supporters will tell their constituents back home that they have stood up for America.
The 1850s is a time of fierce nativist feelings, especially against Catholic immigrants. Lincoln writes to Joshua Speed: “I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can anyone who abhors the oppression of Negroes be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’”
The Homestead Act passes in 1862. It has a pro-immigrant component. Foreigners can get title to 160 acres if they work the land for five years, just like native-born Americans. Many accept the offer.
Germans immigrate to Nebraska from Russia, and introduce winter wheat. The descendants of those original homesteaders are still in Nebraska. When you drive through the farmland around Beatrice, and visit the Homestead National Monument, you will see golden blocks of winter wheat surrounded by a deep green sea of corn. It feels good to understand how this happened.
Lincoln makes an investment in a German newspaper. He makes a deliberate effort to promote officers from ethnic groups, in particular officers with German names. Today Lincoln’s behavior would be called “politically correct,” but he just wants to be inclusive. Lincoln understands why the founding fathers liked the phrase e pluribus Unum, “out of many one.”
Like the 1850s, the twenty-first century is a time of anger directed at immigrants. It is not the Germans or the Irish now. Today, immigrant-haters focus mainly on Muslims and Hispanics.
In this controversy, opponents of amnesty and immigration reform are insistent about immigrants obeying the letter of the law. Immigrants without papers are “illegals.” Truth be told, American history is the history not just of immigrants, but “illegals.”
The Proclamation of 1763 strictly forbade colonists from settling west of the Appalachians. In fact about 10,000 British troops served as a sort of border patrol.
Early Americans paid little attention to the law. They swarmed westward. Daniel Boone, the iconic frontiersman, in today’s parlance, was really a smuggler of illegals. And some of those screaming loudest about today’s illegals may be descendants of yesterday’s illegals.
In 2012, Obama announces that the government will stop deporting the children of undocumented immigrants. He is thinking long-term. These children will grow up. Soon! The question is what will they be like when they grow up?
If they’re treated right, and invested in properly, today’s illegals will become tomorrow’s physicians and nurses, school teachers and firefighters, sailors and soldiers and pilots, judges and mayors and, one day, maybe president.
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