As he landed in Springfield, Ill., Thursday night, President Obama’s weary visage showed early signs of the toll the presidency takes on every occupant of the office, following a bruising two weeks of failed nomination embarrassments and a bitter partisan battle over a nearly trillion dollar economic stimulus.
But in comments aboard Air Force One to reporters, and then in a speech marking the 200 birthday of Abraham Lincoln, Mr. Obama renewed his efforts to fulfill the promise and inspiration of his campaign.
It was not just the promise to keep pursuing bipartisanship — “I am going to keep on working at this,” he said with a wry grin on the plane — but also the attempt in his speech to transcend the trench warfare of the last few weeks by melding together the best of conservatism and liberalism, that made Thursday night one of the more interesting moments of his presidency so far.
The speech was notable in its own right for its complexity and nuance, but was largely overlooked because it occurred late in a day dominated by news of Republican Sen. Judd Gregg’s withdrawal from consideration for Commerce Secretary.
Mr. Obama, who was accused of wanting to bring socialism to America during the presidential campaign, lauded Lincoln as “our first Republican President” who “knew better than anybody what it meant to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”
“He understood that strain of personal liberty and self-reliance, that fierce independence at the heart of the American experience,” Mr. Obama said, arguing that the country’s welfare system “before reform, too often dampened individual initiative, discouraging people from taking responsibility for their own upward mobility.”
“In education, sometimes we’ve lost sight of the role of parents, rather than government, in cultivating a thirst for knowledge and instilling those qualities of good character, hard work and discipline and integrity that are so important to educational achievement and professional success,” he said.
But the president also said that Lincoln understood that “in the end, there are certain things we cannot do on our own. There are certain things we can only do together.”
Mr. Obama said “the pendulum swung too far” in the direction of conservatism under President Bush, citing “knee-jerk disdain for government” and criticizing the belief, voiced by President Reagan in his first inaugural address, “that says every problem can be solved if only government would step out of the way.”
The president said that “only a nation” can overcome the immediate fiscal crisis, create a universal healthcare system and break the country’s dependence on oil through technological innovation.
“We must rediscover right now that it is precisely when we are in the deepest valley, when the climb is steepest, that Americans relearn how to take the mountaintop,” he said. “Together. As one nation.”
The contrast between Mr. Obama’s ideals and high-flying rhetoric especially coming on the same day that Mr. Gregg blamed irreconcilable ideological differences for his backing out, and a day after a stimulus deal was reached largely behind closed doors by Democrats who froze Republicans out of negotiations illustrates the challenge of his presidency.
Change is easier to talk about than implement. The president himself is aware of the enormity of the challenge.
In Springfield Thursday night, Mr. Obama was back in the town where he got his political start as a state legislator, just as Lincoln did.
The president used a story from Lincoln’s life to give a window into his own sense of trepidation at the days ahead.
“Back in looking out at this room, full of so many who did so much for me, I’m also reminded of what Lincoln once said to a favor-seeker who claimed it was his efforts that made the difference in the election,” Mr. Obama said, as the crowd laughed. “Lincoln asked him, ‘So you think you made me President?’”
“‘Well,’ said Lincoln, ‘it’s a pretty mess you’ve got me into. But I forgive you,’ ” Mr. Obama said.
In the meantime, the president’s fiercest enforcer, chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, showed Thursday night that Mr. Obama will continue to play hardball when he needs to accomplish his goals, as he did when mocking Republicans last week during speeches to promote the stimulus.
“There’s a notion that the president is affable, open, accessible,” Mr. Emanuel told reporters in his West Wing office. “He has an open hand, but he has a very firm handshake.”
— Jon Ward, White House reporter, The Washington Times