Obama’s obvious & subtle historical significance

The inauguration of Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois as the 44th President of the United States Tuesday is an historic occasion in ways subtle and obvious. As the first African-American to hold the highest national office, he personifies a particularly important milestone.

Race relations have been very challenging throughout American history. Abolition of slavery ultimately involved the Civil War, the most costly-armed conflict by far for Americans, with over 600,000 deaths.

Obama from the start of his presidential campaign has drawn parallels with Pres. Abraham Lincoln. He announced his candidacy in the Illinois state capital, Springfield, site of Lincoln’s tomb and family home as well as a major Lincoln museum. Considerable publicity attended his decision to travel to Washington D.C. for the inauguration by train, following generally the same route used by Lincoln in 1861.

The new President has praised the book ‘Team of Rivals’ by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, which describes Lincoln’s skill in appointing political opponents to high office. Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward, for example, had been a principal competitor for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination. Naming Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, Obama’s primary rival for the Democratic nomination, as Secretary of State may be viewed as in this spirit.

Modern presidents have generally not selected senior elected officials as Cabinet officers. Since World War II, the only other former Senators to serve as Secretary of State were James F. Byrnes in the Truman administration, John Foster Dulles in the Eisenhower administration and Edmund Muskie in the Carter administration. Dulles had been appointed to the Senate from New York, and suffered election defeat after serving briefly.

Obama’s election likely means race will be reduced as a factor in future elections. In 1960, Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kennedy’s Catholic faith was a source of intense controversy.

A few years later in 1968, Catholic Sen. Muskie of Maine was the Democratic vice presidential nominee. He and presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey came from far behind nearly to defeat the Republican ticket of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. Muskie’s religion was not an issue during the campaign.

In 2000, Democratic Party presidential nominee Al Gore selected Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who is Jewish, as his running mate. The announcement boosted Gore’s support in opinion polls. The 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, is Catholic. His religion is not regarded as a factor in the narrow election loss to incumbent Pres. George W. Bush.

Age has also declined as an issue. In 1952, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s relatively advanced age of 62 was a source of some concern, but his enormous popularity overcame that and other potential obstacles. Age was also raised when Ronald Reagan, approaching 70 years old, sought the 1980 Republican presidential nomination.

Reagan neutralized the problem in part through energetic campaigning, in part through humor. During a 1984 debate with Democratic nominee Walter Mondale, Reagan quipped that he would not bring up his opponent’s "youth". Mondale’s running mate was U.S. Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman nominated for vice president by a major party.

Had the Republicans won in 2008, Sen. John McCain, 72, would have become the oldest inaugurated president, and Gov. Sarah Palin would have been the first woman vice president.

President Obama’s election to the White House is testimony to his great leadership ability and political skill, and is an important part of comprehensive expansion of tolerance in American society.

(Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin. Contact him at acyr@carthage.edu.)