Even admirers are taken aback by Barack Obama's calculating nature - as when he bypassed the public financing that he had promised to accept. How can such an ambitious man be dedicated to the high ideals he claims? But the most saintly American President, Abraham Lincoln, was also the most ambitious.
Obama's second book is entitled "The Audacity of Hope." His path to the presidency has been breathtakingly audacious. He saw that a young African American new to the political scene could lead the nation into the 21st Century. This is a grand goal for a man who, after three terms in the Illinois legislature and losing a bid for Congress, was finally elected to the Senate in 2004 - then announced his bid for the Presidency less than three years later.
The only successful American political career more audacious was Abraham Lincoln's. Lincoln was elected to the Presidency on the eve of the Civil War after four terms in the Illinois legislature and a single two-year term in Congress. Having just lost the Illinois Senatorial race to Democrat Stephen Douglas, Lincoln set about gaining the Republican nomination in order to face Douglas for the Presidency in 1860.
Obama's unlikely ascendance to the Democratic nomination and his novel political campaign - based on
opposition to the Iraq War, his 2004 speech at the Democratic convention, organization at state caucuses, Internet donations, and inspirational rhetoric - is likewise trumped by Lincoln. Lincoln outfoxed the top three Republican candidates at their convention in Chicago (nearby to his home in Springfield), where the hall was filled with his supporters.
Lincoln felt that he was the one person who could save the United States of America when the nation was split in two by slavery. Even more fundamentally, Lincoln - a man who had less than two years of schooling, whose mother died when he was nine, and who was never close with his father (although he had a very nurturing stepmother) - believed himself to be destined for greatness. His bouts of depression throughout his life occurred when he felt he would not achieve this destiny.
Lincoln was the greatest genius to ever be President. Self-educated (he read and reread Shakespeare), he had a colossal memory, intense concentration, and almost superhuman insight into people and events. And Lincoln knew right from wrong: "If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong." In the Gettysburg Address, he encapsulated in a few hundred words the argument that the War had been fought to preserve the Constitution -- which included all Americans, not just white ones.
If there was one knock against Lincoln, it was that he was too tenderhearted. He couldn't see an animal suffer, and was notoriously lax in disciplining his sons. He virtually never angered, even in the face of the greatest personal slights. He only served one term in Congress because he violently opposed the Democrat's Mexican-American War, which was wildly popular in the United States. But he would not see the United States dissolved, no matter what the cost. That cost included his own life.
What is remarkable about a man so determined, so self-made, so ambitious (as his law partner noted, "His ambition was a little engine that knew no rest") was that Lincoln was devoid of personal animosity. He picked his greatest opponents to serve in his cabinet, thus joining the different factions of his own party. He sought to mend the nation: "With Malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds."
As another observer described it, Lincoln's was an "ambition notably free of pettiness [and] malice." Can Obama match this generosity of spirit to his ambitions, the way Lincoln did? I believe he shows every sign of doing so - more than any political figure since Lincoln. Note, for example, his absence of an enemies list, his refusal to vilify Republicans as a group. Barack Obama may be our last, best hope (without the martyrdom).