Posted: Thursday, February 24, 2011 10:00 AM
One hundred and fifty years ago, Abraham Lincoln bid farewell to the citizens of Springfield, Ill., before boarding a train that would carry him to Washington for his inauguration as the 16th president.
"I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington," he said. "Without the assistance of the Divine Being who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail."
In the four months since his election to the presidency, seven southern states had left the union to form the Confederacy, and four more would follow before summer.
The task was great. In order to keep a relatively young republic of little more than four score years together, he would ask his people to make a tremendous sacrifice in blood and treasure.
As he stood on the station platform on that blustery February day, Lincoln could claim no electoral mandate. He won the presidency with only 40 percent of the popular vote, and hadn't appeared on ballots in 10 southern states. The leaders of his own party considered him, at best, a well-meaning bumpkin.
He did possess a certainty in the righteousness of the cause as he saw it, the preservation of the union. In time, he found that the abolition of slavery was part and parcel of making the country whole. As he pressed a war that would claim half a million American lives, he was able to articulate his vision of a country reborn more fully aligned to the principles of its founding documents.
In that pursuit, he was willing to heed the advice of his harshest critics, and give others credit for success as it came.
Lincoln didn't worry about how history would judge him, gave no thought to his legacy or his re-election. He expected, in fact, to be defeated. He was willing to accept the personal consequences of failure. Nor would he compromise for the sake of political expediency. He was not satisfied to, in today's political parlance, kick the can down the road. The fight would be pressed to its conclusion and the question would be answered.
A century and a half later, the country finds itself in the midst of a budget crisis that threatens the republic. For decades politicians of both parties have spent more than they have taxed. We have accepted, perhaps demanded, more government than we've been willing to finance.
How is the problem addressed by national leaders today? The president offers a budget plan that he says will bring spending in line with tax revenues over the next 10 years -- if you exclude ever-growing interest payments that will by then amount to more than $600 billion a year. The Republicans in the House of Representatives have made good on a campaign pledge to cut $61 billion out of the current budget, shaving the deficit by a mere 6 percent. Both efforts are laudable, as far as they go, but neither address the enormous growth in entitlement payments that will push the annual deficit north of a trillion dollars for years to come.
We find ourselves in desperate need of a Lincoln, and woefully short of candidates to fill the role.