On a recent visit to The Californian's offices, the paper's editorial staff asked me if the blockbuster "Lincoln" had any lessons for our current political atmosphere. As a student of American history, I have long admired Abraham Lincoln and believe that we as a nation can still benefit from his leadership. As a member of Congress, it is difficult to offer a completely objective reflection for The Californian without pulling from my personal experience. The legacy of Lincoln is, at its core, one of the greatest examples of leadership in our nation's history.
The times and challenges of today are significantly different from those of the early 1860s. Besides the Revolutionary War and the birth of our nation, no generation, president or Congress has been as tested as Lincoln and the country were from 1861 to 1865. As Lincoln said at Gettysburg, "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure."
We had already fought for independence, but the very soul and fate of our nation hung in the balance. Passing the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery was the country living up to the great words of the Declaration of Independence affirming the equality of all men.
The challenges of today are not of the same magnitude as those Lincoln faced. The fate of the United States is not at risk today in the same way, but we are faced with difficult choices and similar political questions.
That central question now, as it was then, is whether we will come together to put the interests of our nation first. Despite our philosophical differences, we all agree that we must get our deficit under control. That means getting our revenues and spending in line over the long-term to restore our fiscal health. Where we differ is on how to get there.
In Lincoln's day, the nation was concluding a bloody Civil War to keep the Union together and abolish slavery. Ending the war and the practice of slavery were generally agreed as the goals prior to the consideration of the 13th Amendment, which would abolish slavery. However, not all in Congress believed that passing the 13th Amendment would be the best course of action or help heal our country. Some feared the amendment because of politics and their ability to win re-election, while others disagreed about the wisdom of such a declaration. But all were faced with a choice as to where they would stand when the vote was taken.
At that time and still today, getting some in Congress to make difficult choices requires leadership, persuasion and even in some cases arm-twisting. After winning re-election, Lincoln argued he had the support of the people to act on the 13th Amendment. Today, President Obama is fresh off re-election and making the case that the American people, by supporting him, also support his vision of a balanced approach to deficit reduction.
Many in Congress disagreed with Lincoln's assertion, just as many serving today take issue with President Obama's. But just as in Lincoln's time, our very democracy depends on bipartisan compromise to work a reasoned and balanced approach in raising revenues and restructuring long-term deficits in our entitlement programs and defense spending.
In their day, many members of Congress found it incomprehensible to abolish slavery because they fundamentally believed that the races were unequal. Today, some in Congress have drawn a line in the sand citing an almost moral objection to increasing revenues for the federal government, regardless of how it is described or what approach is taken.
In a sense, the political reality for President Lincoln and that Congress was the same as President Obama's is with today's Congress. They both campaigned for re-election clearly outlining the policies they would pursue if they were elected for a second term. Just as Lincoln used every means possible to pass the 13th Amendment shortly before being sworn in for his second term, President Obama has been doing the same to avoid the fiscal cliff. We are seeing now that the president is trying in the same fashion to solve this issue in a bipartisan way that lives up to his campaign promises.
In Lincoln's day, there was no 24/7 news cycle or social media to keep us connected at every moment. With all the noise and access to information, I sometimes wonder whether we actually are more informed or reflective about the decisions we must make as a nation or how well we factually know our history.
For those of you wanting to take a deeper dive into the life and times of Lincoln, I highly recommend Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals," which is the basis for the movie. Or take your family to see "Lincoln" during the holidays and discuss it when you get home.
Now is not the time for choosing our own facts based upon what we want to hear. Our parents' and grandparents' generations knew that shared sacrifice was necessary during the Great Depression and World War II. The truth was tough, but it was obvious that the only way out was by coming together to put the nation first.
In Lincoln's second inaugural address, a month before his assassination, he issued a challenge that rings true even today: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in."
The time was different; the wounds deeper. But the theme was the same: We as Americans are best when we stand together to face the challenges that history presents us.
We have the same opportunity to unite for a better future for the next generation. The challenges of today demand us to meet them headlong. Remember, the bonds we share in common as Americans are far stronger than whatever differences we may have as individuals.
Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, represents California's 20th Congressional District.