As the economy tailspins, President Franklin D. Roosevelt has replaced Abraham Lincoln as the favored Great President of commentators, against whom Obama is most often measured (or illuminated).
President Obama still expresses his “affinity” with Lincoln and, as we are learning about this smart and subtle man, he makes the point with small, deft gestures. Seafood stew was served for lunch on Inauguration Day, just as it was for President Lincoln.
So which is he, another Lincoln or an FDR? And which crisis — the looming secession of the southern states in 1862 or the Great Depression of 1932 — is the better model for our own terrible straits?
In his First Inaugural Address, President Roosevelt made no mention of international threats. Fascism was no concern yet to America, and the primary task of the “loyal army willing to sacrifice,” in which FDR called Americans to enlist, would be “putting our own national house in order.”
Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as the President of the Confederacy just two weeks before President Lincoln took the oath of office, and Lincoln began his inaugural speech by earnestly promising that he had no intention, “directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery…” But the die had been cast and the only choice was to submit slavery to the test of arms or allow the Secession.
Although it is comforting to think so, climate cataclysm is not an Axis powers-like threat that will emerge after the immediate economic meltdown has been massaged, allowing Obama to address crises in succession, as FDR faced the Great Depression and then the Second World War. Climate must be addressed now. Obama cannot afford the luxury of the four years Lincoln was allowed to arrive at the truth of the matter.
“The specter of a warming planet” President Obama addressed in his Inaugural Address can be stopped by one measure alone: an immediate halt to burning coal and the quick phase-out of oil. Cutting off fossil fuel is as far outside our imagination as the notion of ending slavery was for President Lincoln and the nation in 1862. Obama’s emphasis on energy efficiency and renewables ducks the central issue, just as Lincoln’s narrow parsing of slavery, considered only in terms of new states entering the Union, begged the fundamental question of whether slavery should exist anywhere.
The world’s coal and oil companies have issued their own declaration of secession from the common good. Without apology, they announce their intention to ignore climate cataclysm in the interest of huge profit and disdain any notion that alternative energy will impinge upon their business.
Peabody Energy advises investors that “Coal is the fastest-growing fuel in the world, and Peabody is the world’s largest coal company…” Exxon-Mobil reports to its shareholders that “oil, gas and coal will be indispensable to meet the demand for reliable, affordable energy for the foreseeable future.”
To weather this crisis, on which the fate of the world hangs, President Obama must be another President Lincoln, but a Lincoln in his second term. In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln said of slaveholders and abolitionists that “the prayers of both could not be answered.”
So too, President Obama must state without delay that humanity cannot continue a way of life based on fossil fuels, under the misbegotten belief that they are cheap and without moral cost. This too is an illusion cast by a “peculiar and powerful interest” as pernicious and deadly as slavery.