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Barack Obama faces a unique moment in history

Barack Obama is sworn in as 44th President

Barack Obama is sworn in as 44th President of the United States on Jan. 20, 2009. Credit: Getty Images

This op-ed by former New York Governor Mario M. Cuomo was originally published in Newsday on January 20, 2009.

On Feb. 12, three weeks into the administration of our 44th president, Barack Obama, America will mark the 200th birthday of our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln - considered by most historians to be our greatest president ever.

The competition by presidents and presidential candidates to claim the mantle of Lincoln in ways big and small has come to embrace all political faiths. Obama is no exception. He will be the first president to be sworn in on the same Bible used by Lincoln in 1861, having arrived in Washington from Philadelphia by train as Lincoln had, and he has mentioned several times that he has been studying Lincoln's speeches for help in preparing his own inaugural address.

Obama's inauguration today will start what will be the most challenge-ridden presidential term since Lincoln's. Only history will tell us how it compares with Lincoln's, but there are already apparent similarities and differences in their personalities, positions and situations that indicate the kind of leadership we can expect from Obama.

Obama, like Lincoln, has superb personal gifts: a brilliant analytical mind, riveting oratorical and writing abilities, and the capability to remain calm under fire. Both were born and raised in modest circumstances. Neither had significant executive experience before becoming president, and both were considered underdogs at the outset of their campaigns.

Obama, like Lincoln, rejects rigid ideology in policymaking, relying instead on common sense, benign pragmatism, and an overarching grand concept designed to inspire and unify us. Lincoln grasped that single most important idea that would sustain and provoke him for the rest of his days: the Declaration of Independence's achievable goal of equality and opportunity.

To Lincoln - and now to Obama - this is not only a lofty dream or sweet poetry to soothe the soul by wrapping it in high aspiration. It was and is the attainable goal of flesh-and-blood humans who would have to find ways to provide fairly rewarded work, education, health care, security in our invalid or older years, and - most of all - equality of opportunity and the right to be treated with dignity.

Lincoln respected the indispensable need for a market-system economy in achieving these goals, but he also realized that while the market is essential to a successful economy, it is not by itself sufficient to assure it. For that reason Lincoln urged that government be used aggressively to meet the needs the market economy failed to satisfy.

Obama has demonstrated clearly that he, like Lincoln, will not hesitate to call for substantial governmental assistance in the effort to right the Ship of State in today's troubled waters.

Obama also shares Lincoln's extraordinary vision. Lincoln looked beyond the superficial differences that God or history had imposed on us to see the essential truths that unite us. He sympathized vigorously with the cause of democracy in other lands, in Hungary and South America and Greece. He understood that a respect for individual dignity and the equality of all people was the essential foundation, not just for his American family, but for the whole human race.

Lincoln knew, as Obama surely does, that we cannot end terror here, in the Middle East or anywhere in the world just by having the world's most powerful weapons and the best fighting force. We have to add to this force whatever is needed to provide the realistic hope for opportunity and dignity that quiets rage and produces peace here at home and across the globe.

Because Obama shares much of Abraham Lincoln's personality and many of his fundamental beliefs, his leadership could give our nation the chance to live the American dream, an opportunity that Lincoln was denied by an assassin's bullet.

But it could mean much more. While there are significant similarities between Obama and Lincoln, there's a vast and important difference between the circumstances faced by the two in their first term as president.

Lincoln focused his 1861 inaugural address on the one issue that eventually dominated his political career - slavery in the United States and how it would affect the Union, as he had done in the famous debates with Stephen Douglas and his major address before the 1860 convention.

In the first moments of his inaugural address, Lincoln dismissed the other issues facing him as creating neither excitement nor anxiety.

Obama, on the other hand, has literally scores of daunting global issues to deal with, and his success or failure will have a worldwide impact. Today, when he places his left hand on that same Bible Lincoln used a century and a half ago, Obama will be sworn in as president and commander in chief of the dominant superpower in the world, a world that has more than 6 billion human beings, many of whom depend to one extent or another on the condition and actions of the nation Obama will lead.

Never before has there been a nation with such tremendous influence on the entire planet - a planet infested with weapons of mass destruction possessed by dozens of nations, many of them hostile to one another, some already at war and others poised at the brink.

Further menacing the planet is the inconvenient truth of global warming, terrorism, pandemics of various kinds, regular episodes of genocide, hunger threatening millions of human beings and now a badly wounded world economy, ailing in part because of a serious recession in the United States.

One hundred forty-eight years of globalization with its benefits and its burdens make this a very different world from the one Lincoln lived and served in.

Lincoln's failure would have left scarred the face of America, extending the cruel tragedy of slavery and perhaps fracturing the Union. His success helped keep the American dream alive.

Obama's failure would heighten the threat of unprecedented global damage, but his success could help lead our great nation and this entire threatened world into a new period of enlightenment and progress.

Obama's moment in history is a unique one. There has never been more to worry about, but neither has there ever been more to hope for.

We should choose hope.

Mario M. Cuomo was governor of New York from 1983 to 1995.

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