Throughout much of last year's presidential campaign and into the early part of his Administration, President Obama often invoked the name of Abraham Lincoln as a model for the course of his presidency. However, I can't help but wonder whether he looked at the words of Lincoln when preparing the massive, overpriced, unfundable stimulus package recently signed into law.
If not, allow me to do so for him. In 1832, not long after becoming a candidate for a seat in the Illinois state legislature, Lincoln wrote a letter to the residents of Sangamo County in which he discussed certain transportation needs for the area. In this letter, candidate Lincoln wrote (and the italics are mine):
"That the poorest and most thinly populated countries would be greatly benefitted by the opening of good roads, and in the clearing of navigable streams within their limits, is what no person will deny. But yet it is folly to undertake works of this or any other kind, without first knowing that we are able to finish them - as half finished work generally proves to be labor lost. There cannot justly be any objection to having rail roads and canals, any more than to other good things, provided they cost nothing. The only objection is to paying for them; and the objection to paying arises from the want of ability to pay."
Later in the letter, he continued:
"...however desirable an object the construction of a rail road through our country may be; however high our imaginations may be heated at thoughts of it - there is always a heart appalling shock accompanying the account of its cost, which forces us to shrink from our pleasing anticipations."
So here we are, 173 years ago, and one of the men Obama has held up as the model of his presidency is stating that you shouldn't undertake any project for which you cannot pay. Buying now and paying later, or running up a deficit, were not things Lincoln was endorsing; he was endorsing that you pay for the things you can afford, and if there is a project that exceeds your finances you don't pay for it.
So looking at the stimulus bill and the tremendous number of "shovel ready" projects that the fifty states have provided, and taking into account that we cannot in fact pay for any of them (although our children and grandchildren will be expected to shoulder the burden), can we in fact say that Obama is really using Lincoln as a model? And if he is, how much does he really know about what Lincoln thought?
(By the way, this letter is part of magnficent collection of the writings of Lincoln published by The Library of America. It makes for some fascinating reading!)