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Dolman: What Barack Obama can learn from Abe Lincoln

Daniel Day-Lewis, center rear, as Abraham Lincoln, in

Daniel Day-Lewis, center rear, as Abraham Lincoln, in a scene from the film, "Lincoln." Credit: AP

Could there be a more impossible task than to make a gripping, historically accurate movie about ratification of a constitutional amendment by the House of Representatives?

I doubt it -- even if the director is Steven Spielberg, the amendment is the one that ends slavery, and Daniel Day-Lewis plays Abraham Lincoln.

But as you may have heard by now, "Lincoln" succeeds on a spectacular scale.

It shows a haunted, driven president struggling to push the 13th Amendment through a reluctant House while the bloodiest war in U.S. history is nearing an end. It also tells us something important about leadership.

What makes a great president?

It helps to have the vision thing -- mixed with wisdom, passion, bravery and a will of tempered steel.

Lincoln knew slavery was wrong. He saw how it had poisoned our founding democratic principles. While the Declaration of Independence proclaims that "all men are created equal," the Constitution that our founders ratified wound up accepting slavery.

Lincoln was certain to his very core that the Union must be preserved and that slavery must be ended. And he was willing to prosecute a war that took more than 620,000 lives over four horrific years to build a more democratic union.

It helps to master the darker political arts.

The movie portrays Lincoln as we seldom see him -- playing politics at its rock-bottom grubbiest, trading patronage jobs for votes, twisting arms, and wheeling and dealing. Yet out of this mess came possibly America's greatest triumph.

It's the same kind of gamesmanship Lyndon Johnson used so well a century later to jam the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through a recalcitrant, foot-dragging Congress.

Sometimes you just have to let politicians be politicians.

Lincoln was a political virtuoso, and today we continue to enjoy the benefits of his talent.

It helps to be a brilliant communicator.

"Lincoln" shows us a president who had mastered the craft of writing and speaking. Before he went to the White House, he had been a country lawyer. He knew how ordinary Americans thought and he knew how to speak to them.

Words always matter in politics -- no matter the setting. Could England have prevailed in World War II without the powerful oratory of Winston Churchill? Could the civil rights revolution of the 1960s have succeeded without the stirring words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.?

In the same way, it's hard to imagine the Union surviving intact without the unifying framework Lincoln articulated with such clarity -- from his "house divided" speech, to the Gettysburg address, to his second inaugural address -- as the war was winding down -- in which he urged "malice toward none" and "charity for all."

President Barack Obama -- a longtime Lincoln fan -- liked the movie well enough to host a showing of it at the White House. I hope he took its lessons to heart.

For example: What "Lincoln" tells me is that it's not enough to pass a landmark health care bill and then sit passively for months on end as Republicans scathingly attack it.

You have to play the game. You have to defend your turf.

The presidency is a political office and the chief executive must sell his programs to the public. Obama has seemed to forget that on occasion.

Democracy is a noble idea, but it isn't necessarily a noble process. Like all great presidents, the Lincoln on screen seemed comfortable enough with that paradox. Obama in his second term needs to show a little more of the same spirit.

Joseph Dolman was deputy editorial page editor for New York Newsday.