All presidents are tested. Few walk into the Oval Office when the nation is in the throes of multiple crises.
Like Franklin Roosevelt, President-elect Obama is facing a banking emergency.
Like Abraham Lincoln, Obama is trying to patch up national divisions. To ready himself for the job, Obama said Friday he is reading some writings by Lincoln, “who's always an extraordinary inspiration.”
And like Richard Nixon, George W. Bush and others, Obama will be commander in chief over U.S. troops in combat.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
“With two wars and an economic crisis, this is one step away from what Lincoln or FDR faced,” said Terry Sullivan, associate professor of political science at the UNC Chapel Hill. “The question is, ‘Which direction is the nation going to go?'”
While the challenges Obama faces are daunting, they also give him the opportunity to shape history in a big way.
“My 88-year-old mother asks me regularly, ‘Why would anybody want to be president now?' said Sullivan, who manages the Presidential Transition Project at Rice University. “My answer is ‘Every one of them wants to be FDR.' This is their chance. What makes fame in the American presidency is a great challenge and succeeding.” Or, Sullivan added, facing a great challenge and failing.
In fewer than 11 weeks, Obama will inherit not just the economic crisis and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also the ongoing threat of a terrorist attack, a resurgent Russia and nuclear proliferation in hot spots across the globe.
“We are in an almost unprecedented situation, at least in modern times,” White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten said Friday on C-SPAN.
Knowing his opening moves will be widely scrutinized, Obama tried to roll back expectations on election night.
“Our climb will be steep,” he said. “We may not get there in one year or even in one term.”
Yet he remained upbeat as did Roosevelt, who took the reins of a nation in the depths of the Depression. FDR used his optimism to lift up the downtrodden and refresh the American spirit. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” he said at his inauguration in 1933.
When Roosevelt died in 1945, by then a wartime president making secret plans for an atomic bomb, Harry Truman told reporters, “I felt like the moon, the stars and all the planets had fallen on me.”
In an earlier conflict, when the country was on the brink of civil war, Lincoln took a hands-off approach during a four-month lag between his election and inauguration, staying mum so as not to inflame tensions in the North or the South. After Lincoln was elected, but before he took office, South Carolina announced its decision to secede from the Union. Six more states then seceded and together formed the Confederate States of America.
During the transition, Lincoln maintained what became known as an attitude of “masterly inactivity,” said Harold Holzer, who recently wrote the book “Lincoln President-Elect.” Lincoln didn't want to do anything that would upset the South, lose him the support of abolitionists in the North or the northern Democrats whom he needed on his side if there was going to be a fight to save the union.
“He thought the best way to deal with it was to be silent,” Holzer said.
Like Lincoln, Obama used his first speech as president-elect to try to mend fences – and he did it by quoting Lincoln's conciliatory first inaugural address, which was given at a time of such national turmoil that Lincoln traveled to Washington in secret for safety.
“Let's remember that it was a man from this state who first carried the banner of the Republican Party to the White House, a party founded on the values of self-reliance and individual liberty and national unity,” Obama said of Lincoln, another lanky lawmaker from Illinois.
“As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours, we are not enemies but friends,” Obama said. “Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”
To reach out to his critics, Lincoln even allowed a reporter from an opposition newspaper, a journalist named Henry Villard, to virtually move into his office in Springfield, Mo., to chronicle the transition.
“That's the equivalent of Obama picking up the phone and asking Sean Hannity to move in,” Holzer said of the conservative television personality.
Roosevelt, who picked members of the opposing party for Cabinet spots, was as noncommittal as Lincoln as he was about to be sworn into office amid a banking crisis. When Herbert Hoover asked him to sign on to a bank holiday – a temporary closure of banks – three days before inauguration, Roosevelt famously looked up and said, “The drapes look very pretty. I'm sure Eleanor will want to keep these just as they are.”
That made Hoover furious. Soon after taking the oath of office, Roosevelt declared the banking holiday on his own.
“He wanted to do it himself. A clean slate is what Lincoln wanted. It's what Roosevelt wanted,” Holzer said. “The lessons of history are there. The most successful transformative presidencies were patient between the election and the inauguration.”
Maybe history is repeating itself in that regard. When President Bush announced before the election that he was hosting a global economic summit in Washington on Nov. 15, the Obama camp said the presidential hopeful wouldn't be there. “He understands there is only one president,” an Obama adviser said.