"Turns out, the American people agree with me," Obama said at his first news conference of 2013. In other words: I won — deal with it.
Understandable as that approach may be, it's not the path to greatness.
In a way, Obama's challenge Monday resembles that which faced Lincoln on March 4, 1865: When addressing a melancholy nation, how do you give people hope? Polls show that nearly two-thirds of the public believes that the country is on the wrong track. Six of every 10 Americans believe harder economic times are ahead. While the president is incredibly popular as a person, less than 30 percent think he can change Washington or fix the economy.
Americans are distrustful of government, of which the presidency is a living symbol. Obama took the oath of office amid great hype and hope for politics transformed, bearing promises of a new way. "The time has come," he said in 2009, "to put aside childish things." Four years later, our leaders are still acting like kids.
The national debt threatens future generations. Climate change threatens the globe. Joblessness, gun violence, antiquated immigration laws, and the decline of social mobility are stiff challenges, too.
"Obama has to make that heartfelt plea for bipartisanship and shared sacrifice," said Brian Carso, associate professor of history and government at Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa. And then there's the matter of humility.
"The Obama folks tend to behave like morally superior beings who came down from another planet," added Carso, who worked in Republican Gov. George Pataki's administration in New York and at the 2004 Republican National Convention. "It think he has to step beyond that and lead in terms of getting some bipartisan support."
If so, it's worth considering four passages from Lincoln's second inaugural address that might guide Obama today:
1. "At this second appearing to take the oath of presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first." Lincoln's point was that the national crisis was so obvious to his countrymen that he didn't need a long speech to address it. A spare 700 words, the speech is now carved into the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. The memorial should be a reminder to Obama that great presidents don't fail because of their block-headed rivals; they succeed in spite of them.
2. "Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came." This is as close as Lincoln came to playing the blame game. By contrast, Obama's aides (if not the president himself) are obsessed with GOP intransigence. Their loathing clouds long-term judgment. White House advisers provide chapter and verse on how the GOP will block the president's agenda, but they have a hard time articulating how he'll overcome his harsh experience — and what his ultimate legacy will be. Even when their assessment of the GOP is accurate (and it often is), the short-sightedness is detrimental.