Obama: I have it tougher than Abe Lincoln

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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President Barack Obama said yesterday in Decorah, Iowa, that he absorbs more political criticism than Abraham Lincoln, the assassinated 16th U.S. president, attracted from his Civil War critics.

The comment came during a question-and-answer session where one invited audience member asked Obama how he deals with his congressional critics in the GOP. “The Congress doesn’t seem to be a good partner. You said so yourself, they’re more interested in seeing you lose than [seeing] the country win,” the questioner lamented.

“Democracy is always a messy business in a big country like this,” Obama responded. “When you listen to what the federalists said about the anti-federalists … those guys were tough. Lincoln, they used to talk about him almost as bad as they talk about me.”

The comparison “is hysterical … that is really laughable in many respects,” said Alvin Felzenberg, the author of a book on American presidents. “You couldn’t print things today they said about Lincoln.” Felzenberg teaches at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, and was the chief spokesman for the 9/11 Commission.

Criticism of Lincoln in his day “was even more vitriolic than what you see about Obama,” said Eric Foner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning presidential historian at Columbia University. “Obama is a guy who has a thin skin and does not take criticism well.” Foner’s Pulitzer-winning volume was titled “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery.”

Obama’s sensitivity to criticism is bound up with his progressive ideology, which sees political disputes as best resolved by experts, said Michael Franc, vice president for government studies at the Heritage Foundation. Obama believes “he has discovered the truth and if you disagree with him, it’s not only against the country, its unpatriotic and anti-Obama,” Franc suggested. (RELATED: Boehner steps in the ring to criticize Obama bus tour)

Eric Dezenhall, a former communications aide to President Ronald Reagan, went ever further in an interview with The Daily Caller: Obama’s complaint, he said, “is more grandiose than narcissistic … It’s equating any form of push-back with some sort of giant historical crime.”

Lincoln faced a civil war in which “half the country would rather leave than accept that he was a constitutional president,” Felzenberg told TheDC. But “no one challenged Obama’s election, no one tried to shut down the inauguration … to put himself at [Lincoln’s] level seems very vain and self-absorbed.”

Even though he was repeatedly snubbed and insulted by both Democrats and Republicans, “Lincoln had this amazing capacity for open-mindedness,” Foner explained. “He wanted criticism. He invited critics into the White House … I don’t think Obama does.”

“Lincoln was the original ‘moron Republican,’” and was frequently described as an an ugly, ignorant hick, said Denzenhall. In 1980, Reagan faced the same social scorn, Dezenhall added. “You could just feel it, whether it was comments about his ‘idiocy,’ his ‘laziness,’ about Nancy [Reagan] being Marie Antoinette, or his horrible brown suits.”

Obama, by contrast, “has never walked into a gathering of his [social] milieu and experienced anything other than being toasted,” Dezehall said.

Conservatives are increasingly highlighting what they say is Obama’s fear of any criticism, however minor. (RELATED: Obama may run Truman-style 2012 campaign)

In November 2006, then-Senator Obama rebuked New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd for mentioning his prominent ears. “You talked about my ears, and I just want to put you on notice: I’m very sensitive … [because] I was teased relentlessly when I was a kid about my big ears,” he told Dowd seven weeks after the column appeared.

“We’re trying to toughen you up,” Dowd replied.

Watch: Obama assures US economic comeback

In June of this year, Obama complained that he was “left at the altar” when GOP negotiators rejected his tax-boosting “Grand Bargain” debt ceiling deal. Congress subsequently negotiated a deficit reduction plan that left Obama on the sidelines.

“He’s put himself in a cocoon,” said Ryan Rhodes, a Iowa tea party activist who challenged Obama publicly on Monday. “A lot of his supporters are more sensitive … They seem to think any questioning of the president is racist,” he told TheDC.

In recent weeks, says Foner, even Democratic partisans have begun criticizing Obama’s apparent unwillingness to hear critics: “Obama has dismissed liberal and left-wing criticism … He acts as if they have no place to go and he doesn’t have to listen to them.”

Obama’s self-comparison with Abraham Lincoln came during the second stop of his three-day taxpayer-funded tour through Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois.

Obama told another questioner that politicians should avoid invective. “Since I’ve been called a socialist who wasn’t born in this country, who is destroying America and taking away its freedoms because I passed a health care bill, I’m all for lowering the rhetoric,” he said.