Jon Meacham, the author of a recently published biography of Thomas Jefferson, cites with approval a quote from Mark Twain: “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
Meacham and Steven Speilberg, director of the movie “Lincoln,” have provided us this season with vivid portrayals of the complexity of politics and the challenges of leadership. In their accounts of important periods in American history, they also have underscored lessons that apply directly to the politics of 2012.
Both Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln had flaws — that is, they were human — and both took pragmatic rather than rigid ideological approaches to the challenges facing them. In other words, they didn’t let the desire for a perfect solution get in the way of taking action.
We regard the political divides of today as unprecedented, but they would look familiar to both Jefferson and Lincoln. A similar perspective on the challenges of extreme partisanship and the skills of a great political leader in negotiating imperfect solutions is evident in Robert Caro’s most recent volume on the early months of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency.
The historical verdict on Barack Obama’s presidency won’t be available for many decades, but his re-election guarantees that his legacy will be far more significant than if he had not won a second term. For one thing, his signature accomplishment, which now even he calls “Obamacare,” will endure and likely is to gain in public support as many key provisions go into effect in 2014.
Observers already have begun to speculate about whether his top priority in a second term will be immigration reform, climate change legislation or something else. What the rhymes of history tell us, however, is that presidents rarely get to choose which issues they will have to deal with.
Sometimes the agenda is determined by issues of war and peace, as illustrated by the 9/11 attacks and the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Domestic policy movements, such as those for civil rights, equal rights for women and, more recently, gay and lesbian legal rights, also have demanded the attention of presidents.
Last Friday, in Newtown, Conn., the event that may define Barack Obama’s second term shocked and saddened a nation. In a country that celebrates violence in much of its popular culture and that has been relatively indifferent to previous acts of mass murder by individuals armed with killing machines, the slaughter of 20 young children finally might have changed everything.
By the time you read this column, thousands of words already will have expressed outrage and resolve to change the climate and laws regarding guns in this country. Absolutist defenders of the Second Amendment largely have been quiet in the first few days, other than a few extremists urging school teachers and principals to carry weapons.
And then, of course, there is Mike Huckabee, who had the incredible callousness to argue that the violence at Sandy Hook Elementary Schools was directly related to the absence of school prayer. The former Arkansas governor is part of a minority who would impose their personal beliefs on everyone else despite the clear evidence that diversity of thought and opinion was one of the key founding principles of this nation.
Gun advocates claim unfettered constitutional protection, but their assertion is not supported by facts or history. Two recent Supreme Court decisions, both by 5-4 margins, concluded that the Second Amendment confers a personal right to gun possession, but clearly leaves room for regulation.
History now has provided a great opportunity for Barack Obama. Although the NRA is widely seen as too powerful a force to defeat, so were Southern senators at the time of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Similarly, so were Lincoln’s opponents as he sought to pass the 13th Amendment through a badly divided Congress.
While a total solution to the epidemic of gun violence is not possible, it is important to begin the process of dealing with it. To get an assault weapons ban passed and to start building the framework for a rational system of regulations on guns and ammunition, Obama will have to use the leverage of his position, the public outrage over the Connecticut tragedy and all the political skill he can muster. He will have to make deals, bargain and negotiate, and in the end settle for less than he wants and less than many critics will think is acceptable.
Jefferson and Lincoln and Johnson will be looking over his shoulder and reminding him that politics is a tough and messy business, but that it is the way in which we deal with the important issues facing the country. The faces of those 20 Connecticut schoolkids also will be a constant reminder that this time has to be different.
Laslo Boyd does consulting in higher education, public policy and politics. His email address is email@example.com.