I have long believed that great movies can change the world. The movie Lincoln demonstrates how Abraham Lincoln's determination to engage the Congress was an essential ingredient in the effort to pass the 13th amendment. What makes a great president is not only good ideas and a strong moral compass, but an ability to enact those ideas into law. And usually the only practical way to do that is by forging a working partnership with Congress.
The real lesson of the movie is that President Lincoln committed enormous time and energy into working with Congress and its individual members to pass the 13th amendment legally banning slavery in the United States. It's easy to look back upon this tremendous achievement as the inevitable result of the Union's victory over the confederate states. But the truth is that its passage, like all great legislative accomplishments in our nation's history, was wrought through messy negotiation between a tireless and determined President and a diverse and unwieldy legislative body. By contrast some of President Obama's critics say that in his first term he did not engage Congress enough and because of that he failed to achieve all he could.
Lincoln's push to pass the 13th amendment with a deliberate focus on members of Congress is the hallmark of the movie. His energy wasn't just directed at the opposition party but also towards fractious elements of his own party. In one scene, Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln is asking Tommy Lee Jones, who portrays Thaddeus Stevens, to forgo delivering his usual principled abolitionist rhetoric on the floor of the House of Representatives so that he would not poison the well of public opinion against the 13th amendment. Both men ultimately want to abolish slavery, but Lincoln knew that unless Stevens moderated his expression of his views, achieving that goal would be impossible. Stevens is hesitant as he holds his principles dearly and finds the idea of moderation and compromise unsettling, as though he is abandoning his moral compass. But as Lincoln so poignantly says, "What's the use of knowing true north when the compass cannot tell you how to avoid the swamps and mountains in your way?"
The permanent end of slavery in this country is a remarkable legacy of both President Lincoln and the 39th Congress. One could clearly imagine the passage of the 13th constitutional amendment after a scholarly congressional debate full of high-minded discourse and polite disagreements. Yet the movie demonstrates politics for its true nature; that American democracy is a messy and mundane enterprise requiring a committed president's constant attention and legislators that can be persuaded, cajoled, or coerced into supporting the passage of important laws. Perhaps the movie's best metaphor for the way in which coalitions for great legislation are created is the scene in which a representative of the president chases a wavering legislator through the mud while yelling threats against betrayal and promising rewards for cooperation.
Great presidents get big things done by recognizing that continuous work with Congress is perhaps their foremost duty and best use of their time. It is a central element of their job description; notwithstanding that it is often part of their job that they least like doing. Other presidents like LBJ, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton understood that the tedious and often unpleasant work of engaging with Congress is the only way to lead this country forward. After all, the Founding Fathers created a system where the Congress and the Executive were co-equal branches of government. If President Obama follows the Lincoln model, he can truly be a great and historic president, and can change the course of history in economic policy, immigration, education and the other big issues of our time.