WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama called on Americans Thursday to follow Abraham Lincoln's example of showing generosity to political opponents and valuing national unity — above all else.
At a ceremony in the stately Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol marking the 16th president's 200th birthday, Obama said he felt "a special gratitude" to the historical giant, who in many ways made his own story possible. On Thursday night, Obama, the nation's first black president, will deliver the keynote address at the Abraham Lincoln Association's annual banquet in Springfield, Ill.
As lawmakers and guests looked on, Obama recalled Lincoln's words in the closing days of the Civil War, when the South's defeat was certain.
Lincoln "could have sought revenge," Obama said, but he insisted that no Confederate troops be punished.
"All Lincoln wanted was for Confederate troops to go back home and return to work on their farms and in their shops," Obama said. "That was the only way, Lincoln knew, to repair the rifts that had torn this country apart. It was the only way to begin the healing that our nation so desperately needed."
A day after House and Senate leaders agreed on a costly economic stimulus plan that drew scant Republican support, Obama said, "we are far less divided than in Lincoln's day," but "we are once again debating the critical issues of our time."
"Let us remember that we are doing so as servants to the same flag, as representatives of the same people, and as stakeholders in a common future," Obama said. "That is the most fitting tribute we can pay and the most lasting monument we can build to that most remarkable of men, Abraham Lincoln."
It was by no twist of fate that Obama was there.
When he launched his presidential campaign, he did it in Abraham Lincoln's hometown. When he arrived in Washington, he followed the train route Lincoln used in 1861. When he needed a Bible for his swearing-in, Obama picked Lincoln's.
Heck, even Obama's lunch on Inauguration Day was modeled after Lincoln's favorites, right down to the seafood stew.
Clearly, the 44th president wants Americans to know how much he admires the 16th.
Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin thinks that reflects Obama's genuine affinity with Lincoln — for his willingness to learn and grow, his ability to communicate with the nation, his insistence on having strong-willed, independent advisers.
"Somehow Lincoln has worked himself into Obama's heart and mind, and it's a good thing to have Lincoln as your mentor," said Goodwin, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Team of Rivals," a Lincoln book that Obama says has influenced his thinking on how to govern.
But for a new president trying to reassure people during another time of crisis, highlighting Lincoln can also be a signal to the nation: If one skinny Illinois lawyer could guide the country through the Civil War, then maybe another one can handle today's problems.
In a sense, Obama has associated himself with one of the most popular political brands in Illinois, says Bruce Newman, an expert on political marketing at DePaul University. Evoking Lincoln reassures voters that Obama shares their values and will try to emulate their hero.
Obama is hardly the first president to display an affection for Lincoln.
Teddy Roosevelt, for instance, was sworn in wearing a ring that contained a strand of Lincoln's hair, and he surrounded himself with busts of Lincoln. Woodrow Wilson and Richard Nixon identified with him, too.
Historian Richard Norton Smith said admiring Lincoln is practically routine for presidents, particularly embattled ones. "I'm not sure how much it matters to voters. I suppose it's better to associate yourself with Lincoln than Millard Fillmore," he said.
But no other president can match the emotional connection of a black man following in the footsteps of the president who ended slavery. It helps complete what Smith called "the unfinished part of the Lincoln agenda" — bringing America closer to real racial equality.
Then there are the more mundane links.
Both Lincoln and Obama were lawyers who served in the Illinois Legislature. Both had brief Washington careers before running for president. Both started out as relative unknowns who were criticized as inexperienced, yet managed to win the White House.
Smith, who was the first director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, sees a potential risk in Obama's public admiration of Lincoln.
"To the extent that you are seen as wrapping yourself in the Lincoln flag or, worse, presenting yourself as a latter-day Lincoln, you set the bar terribly high and you invite legitimate criticism," said Smith, now a scholar in residence at George Mason University.
But both he and Goodwin said they think Obama has successfully walked that tightrope so far.
"It's not that he's comparing himself with Lincoln," Goodwin said. "It's rather that he's just saying, here was a man who ... faced a time of crisis and came through it so extraordinarily, and I can learn from him."