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NBC's Gregory to Liberal Historian: What Can Obama Learn From Lincoln to Be a 'Great President'?

In an interview with liberal historian Doris Kearns-Goodwin for NBC's Press Pass, Meet the Press moderator David Gregory invited her to draw parallels between President Obama and Abraham Lincoln: "It seems like it's so hard to put Lincoln in a modern political context...But there is a leadership lesson that you think is important now and is important for President Obama embarking on a second term, as he seeks to be what he's always wanted to be, which is not just a president, but a great president."

Kearns-Goodwin used the newly released film about Lincoln to make the point: "Absolutely. I mean I think the timing of it couldn't be better. And it's just coincidence that it really happened to be....there's this great scene, it's not just a scene, but Lincoln's actual words, 'I am clothed with immense power. You will get this vote.' So a president is clothed in immense power if they use the leadership skills to make it happen."

On the November 11 Meet the Press, Gregory similarly teed up Kearns-Goodwin by wondering: "The polarization then so profound; as this President now strives to be a great President, like Lincoln, what is his challenge to break this polarization?"

Later in their Press Pass exchange, Gregory lamented:

And one of things that you've talked about, and other historians have as well, that if the President is not quite yet a transformational president – he's certainly an historic figure, the first African-American president – but not a transformational figure because he has not yet really been able to turn public opinion and craft it in such a way, in the way that Lincoln could – did and recognized the importance of.

Kearns-Goodwin replied by praising ObamaCare: "I think the Affordable Health Care Act is a transformational act, but he wasn't able to persuade the country, even still, how extraordinarily important it is."

She gushed over his election night speech and urged him to spend more time surrounded by cheering crowds:

And I think you watch him on victory night, he was able to speak to that crowd with such energy and such conviction and moral strength because he needs the energy of the crowd. It's not a question of him not having the words, I think he needs to connect himself more to the people in the second term....He needs that, it's almost like when he's with the crowds, as he is in the campaign, something happens to him....Somehow he's got to keep that connection with the people going in order to communicate better what's happening.

Here is a transcript of the November 18 Press Pass exchange:

11:38AM ET

(...)

DAVID GREGORY: It seems like it's so hard to put Lincoln in a modern political context. I can just imagine, you know, the Twitter treatment of Lincoln trying to abolish slavery, "slavery," you know, "# how's he going to get this done?." But there is a leadership lesson that you think is important now and is important for President Obama embarking on a second term, as he seeks to be what he's always wanted to be, which is not just a president, but a great president.

DORIS KEARNS-GOODWIN: Absolutely. I mean I think the timing of it couldn't be better. And it's just coincidence that it really happened to be. So what the whole film is about, is after the election, before the new congress comes in, having to get something done with people who are leaving the office and coming in, and it's compromise. I mean, he's able to bring the radical faction, who wants to have something much more than the 13th Amendment, they want to have equality, and that's Thaddeus Stevens, and the conservative faction who's not sure about this, even in the Republican Party, and the Democrats, who are absolutely against it. And some how, his leadership ability – there's this great scene, it's not just a scene, but Lincoln's actual words, "I am clothed with immense power. You will get this vote." So a president is clothed in immense power if they use the leadership skills to make it happen.

(...)

GREGORY: And one of things that you've talked about, and other historians have as well, that if the President [Obama] is not quite yet a transformational president – he's certainly an historic figure, the first African-American president – but not a transformational figure because he has not yet really been able to turn public opinion and craft it in such a way, in the way that Lincoln could – did and recognized the importance of.

KEARNS-GOODWIN: Yeah, I think the one thing that President Obama said he's learned from his first term is that his communication skills were not as he wished them to be. And that's critical in a democracy. I mean, I think the Affordable Health Care Act is a transformational act, but he wasn't able to persuade the country, even still, how extraordinarily important it is. And I think you watch him on victory night, he was able to speak to that crowd with such energy and such conviction and moral strength because he needs the energy of the crowd. It's not a question of him not having the words, I think he needs to connect himself more to the people in the second term.

Lincoln had these public opinion baths, where they could come in and just talk to him in the morning. I'm not sure that's going to happen, but I think if he takes – I think if I were him, this summer, I would take a train, the way Theodore Roosevelt did, around the country with his family, stop at village stations. He needs that, it's almost like when he's with the crowds, as he is in the campaign, something happens to him. And the White House becomes a bubble and then your communication skills go down because you're not feeling the people. The reason FDR was such a great speaker was that he had two press conferences a week – maybe that's what he could do – because he got the feeling of the people through those people in the press. Somehow he's got to keep that connection with the people going in order to communicate better what's happening.

GREGORY: Is it harder in this media environment, in this special interest environment, in this broader political environment, to be a conviction politician?

KEARNS-GOODWIN: I think it's harder to use the bully pulpit to express your convictions now, the bully pulpit is not what it was in the old days. When Lincoln gave a speech it would be printed in full in the newspapers. Everybody would read the whole speech. When FDR gave his radio chats, 80% of the audience is listening to him whole. Now somebody gives a talk and immediately the pundits, sometimes including myself, are talking about it before it's even been absorbed by the country. Somebody yells, like Joe Wilson did, "you lie!," that becomes the story. And even when JFK gave his speech to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the networks cut right back to ordinary programming. We need to allow the president's communications to be absorbed more by the country before the cable 27-hour – not 27, 24-hour/7 – takes in.

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-- Kyle Drennen is a news analyst at the Media Research Center. Follow him on Twitter.