When Barack Obama launched his presidential campaign, he did it in Abraham Lincoln’s hometown. When he arrived in Washington, he followed the train route Lincoln used in 1861. When he needed a Bible for his swearing-in, Obama picked Lincoln’s.
Heck, even Obama’s lunch on Inauguration Day was modeled after Lincoln’s favorites, right down to the seafood stew.
Clearly, the 44th president wants Americans to know how much he admires the 16th.
Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin thinks that reflects Obama’s genuine affinity with Lincoln — for his willingness to learn and grow, his ability to communicate with the nation, his insistence on having strong-willed, independent advisers.
"Somehow Lincoln has worked himself into Obama’s heart and mind, and it’s a good thing to have Lincoln as your mentor," said Goodwin, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Team of Rivals," a Lincoln book that Obama says has influenced his thinking on how to govern.
But for a new president trying to reassure people during another time of crisis, highlighting Lincoln can also be a signal to the nation: If one skinny Illinois lawyer could guide the country through the Civil War, then maybe another one can handle today’s problems.
In a sense, Obama has associated himself with one of the most popular political brands in Illinois, says Bruce Newman, an expert on political marketing at DePaul University. Evoking Lincoln reassures voters that Obama shares their values and will try to emulate their hero.
Obama spent Wednesday evening attending a performance at Ford’s Theatre, where Lincoln was assassinated in 1865. He reminded the crowd that even in the middle of the war, Lincoln insisted on devoting scarce resources to finishing the Capitol as a symbol that the nation would emerge united.
"For despite all that divided us — North and South, black and white — he had an unyielding belief that we were, at heart, one nation and one people," Obama said.
Obama is hardly the first president to display an affection for Lincoln, whose 200th birthday is Thursday.
Teddy Roosevelt, for instance, was sworn in wearing a ring that contained a strand of Lincoln’s hair, and he surrounded himself with busts of Lincoln. Woodrow Wilson and Richard Nixon identified with him, too.
Historian Richard Norton Smith said admiring Lincoln is practically routine for presidents, particularly embattled ones. "I’m not sure how much it matters to voters. I suppose it’s better to associate yourself with Lincoln than Millard Fillmore," he said.
But no other president can match the emotional connection of a black man following in the footsteps of the president who ended slavery. It helps complete what Smith called "the unfinished part of the Lincoln agenda" — bringing America closer to real racial equality.
Then there are the more mundane links.
Both Lincoln and Obama were lawyers who served in the Illinois Legislature. Both had brief Washington careers before running for president. Both started out as relative unknowns who were criticized as inexperienced, yet managed to win the White House.
Obama has highlighted his interest in Lincoln at key moments.
He launched his presidential campaign in at the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., where Lincoln served. He returned there to reveal his pick for vice president. He quoted Lincoln in his campaign speeches and in his victory speech on election night.
He has kept up the Lincoln emphasis since then, even making an unannounced nighttime visit to the Lincoln Memorial with his family a few days before his inauguration.
On Thursday, Obama was delivering remarks at the Lincoln bicentennial celebration at the Capitol Rotunda. He planned to return to Springfield on Thursday night to deliver the keynote address at the Abraham Lincoln Association’s annual banquet.
Smith, who was the first director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, sees a potential risk in Obama’s public admiration of Lincoln.
"To the extent that you are seen as wrapping yourself in the Lincoln flag or, worse, presenting yourself as a latter-day Lincoln, you set the bar terribly high and you invite legitimate criticism," said Smith, now a scholar in residence at George Mason University.
But both he and Goodwin said they think Obama has successfully walked that tightrope so far.
"It’s not that he’s comparing himself with Lincoln," Goodwin said. "It’s rather that he’s just saying, here was a man who … faced a time of crisis and came through it so extraordinarily, and I can learn from him."
Obama can do more than learn from Lincoln, said Springfield attorney Richard Hart, president of the Abraham Lincoln Association. He can also remember during dark times that Lincoln succeeded against the longest of odds.
"I hope he can have Lincoln as his pal as he goes through that lonely process of being president," Hart said. "I hope that Lincoln provides some strength to him."