Public Sentiment is Everything

“In this and like communities, public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently he who moulds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.”Abraham Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas engaged a series of debates in pursuit of the Senate seat from Illinois in 1858. The campaign was indirect in that state legislatures appointed Senators at the time. Hence, Lincoln and Douglas were entrusted with the banners of their respective parties (Republican and Democrat) to wrestle control of the Illinois legislature.

The key Lincoln argument was that the Federal Government can and ought to control whether or not slavery was permitted in the territories as they became states. That had been the conventional wisdom since the adoption of the US Constitution. Moreover, Lincoln was concerned that the logical extension of the infamous Dred Scott decision — a radical departure from Constitutional precedent asserting that local state law against slavery was superseded by Constitutional protections of property — was that states would be prohibited from banning slavery. Douglas argued for local popular sovereignty as to the question of the extension of slavery. Douglas refused to concede that the logic of the Court in Dred Scott would be used to compel slavery to by recognized in all states.

Lincoln was subject to the criticism of hypocrisy. He personally objected to slavery, but it was not his position to abolish slavery in those states in which it had already been established. The key [1] he used to free himself cage of hypocrisy was the observation that “Public sentiment is everything.” In the South, public sentiment would make the abolition of slavery impossible. Perhaps with time, public sentiment would change, but it was imprudent to impose a policy against which there was strong public antipathy. Lincoln was right. Ultimately, it would take a bloody Civil War to eliminate slavery.

We do not argue here that opposition to the particular health care reform offered by the Democrats is morally equivalent to the abolition of slavery  in 1858, or opposition to the current bill is as blind to the real moral issues as Stephen Douglas was. Indeed, there is a strong argument that individual freedom and liberty, at the very core of the anti-slavery position, animates opposition to the current health care bill. However, independent of the correctness of one policy or another, it is clear that a majority of Americans oppose the health care reform as the Democrats have cobbled it together. Most people want to start over with a clean slate to construct a more reasonable, less radical, and more transparent approach to change. Public sentiment is strongly against the President and Congress.

President Barack Obama fancies himself in the mold of Abraham Lincoln, a tall well-spoken person from Illinois, elected President despite modest beginnings. If the comparison is to be more than superficial, Obama ought to adopt the profound wisdom of his erstwhile political model. Leadership in this case requires making a successful public case for Obama’s brand of health care reform before compelling its implementation against the clear public sentiment. Obama has the opportunity to be one who is “deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions.”

[1] David Zarefsky, “‘Public Sentiment Is Everything’: Lincoln’s View of Political Persuasion,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Summer 1994.

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