"There is a wisdom there," Obama told interviewer Steve Kroft, "and a humility about his approach to government, even before he was president, that I just find very helpful."
Humility? Obama's frequent invocations of Abraham Lincoln — a man enshrined in myth and marble with his own temple on the National Mall — would not at first blush say much about his own instincts for modesty or self-effacement.
And now there are early rumblings of a backlash to Obama's ostentatious embrace of all things Lincoln, with his not-so-subtle invitations to compare the 44th president to the 16th, the "Savior of the Union."
Simply put, some scholars think the comparisons have gone a bit over the top hat.
Sean Wilentz, a scholar in American history at Princeton, said many presidents have sought to frame themselves in the historical legacies of illustrious predecessors, but he couldn't find any examples quite so brazen.
"Sure, they've looked back to Washington and even, at times, Jackson. Reagan echoed and at times swiped FDR's rhetoric," said Wilentz. "But there's never been anything like this, and on this scale. Ever."
Eric Foner, a Columbia historian who has written extensively on the Civil War era, agreed that comparing one's self to Lincoln sets a rather high bar for success, and could come off like "a certain kind of hubris."
"It'd be a bit like a basketball player turning up before his first game and saying, 'I'm kind of modeling myself on Michael Jordan,'" he said. "If you can do it, fine. If you're LeBron James, that'll work. But people may make that comparison to your disadvantage."
As it happens, Obama may find this an entirely apt comparison.
"I'm LeBron, baby," he told a Chicago Tribune reporter at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. "I can play on this level. I got some game."
That kind of preening highlights a risk that many presidents have encountered as they gaze in history's mirror.
At one level, it is a common instinct for presidents to try to establish psychic connections with predecessors — a kind of mentoring program across the ages — when grappling with a uniquely demanding job that only a handful of contemporaries have held. Harry Truman loved Andrew Jackson, Ronald Reagan admired Calvin Coolidge.
But if the self-comparisons go too far they can come off as vanity or self-aggrandizement. Richard Nixon famously spoke with portraits of former presidents in the White House, during the darker days of his presidency.
Bill Clinton summoned the ghosts of multiple presidents during his eight years. During the 1992 campaign and in his early presidency, he constantly invoked his boyhood hero, John F. Kennedy, and often deliberately channeled his rhetorical style. In the days before his first inauguration, he traveled to Thomas Jefferson's Monticello (with whom he felt a connection in part because his middle name is Jefferson). Then, he he tried to pass a jobs program during the first weeks of his presidency, he traveled to Hyde Park and laid a rose at Franklin D. Roosevelt's grave.
By 1996, the references had shifted. For much of that year and in 1997, there were constant invocations of Theodore Roosevelt — the president whose historical circumstances, he argued, most resembled his own.
Hillary Rodham Clinton learned how seeking inspiration in historical comparisons can become the stuff of mockery after revelations that Jean Houston, who writes on spirituality and self-actualization, had visited with the then-first lady and encouraged her to imagine a conversation with Clinton's own heroine, Eleanor Roosevelt. Clinton went through the spin cycle with late-night comics and editorial cartoonists, after some journalists naccurately portrayed the session as a seance.
Obama may have been drifting toward similar territory in a Time magazine essay, written shortly after his arrival in the Senate in 2005, where he talked about a favorite Lincoln photograph he keeps in his office.
"On trying days, the portrait, a reproduction of which hangs in my office, soothes me; it always asks me questions," Obama wrote.
However soothing, say historians, the main problem with channeling predecessors is that it rarely does much to illuminate a president's real choices. Usually, the similarities between different eras are entirely superficial.
Some historians say this is an issue raised by Obama's embrace of "Team of Rivals," the history of Lincoln written by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Obama has spoken extensively about how much he values the book, and commentators have portrayed his selection of people like Joe Biden as vice president and Hillary Clinton as secretary of state as an illustration of the principle in action.
But Goodwin's book makes clear that Lincoln did not recruit rivals into his cabinet as some kind of best-practices management tool. He did it because it was the only way to keep a unified political coalition in the face of enormous ideological differences even within his own party on the main questions of the day-the future of slavery and the Union.
As it was, keeping these rivals on the same team was an exercise that took vast amounts of Lincoln's time energy and political capital.
"It was not at all unusual, in the 19th century, to put your rivals in the cabinet," Foner said. Plus, he continued: "Lincoln's cabinet was pretty dysfunctional. It didn't meet that often, and when it did it couldn't decide anything."
Yet if they are governing in different times, Obama nonetheless hears an echo of Lincoln in his own career.
He announced his candidacy in front of the Old State House in Springfield, Ill.?"where Lincoln once called on a divided house to stand together," he reminded his listeners.
The same week, he told a newspaper that he looked up to Lincoln, and had a couple things in common with the guy, too.
"Not only is Lincoln one of my political heroes," Obama said, "but like Lincoln, I served for seven years in Springfield in the state Senate, and it's there I learned how to legislate, it's there that I developed many of my political ideas."
On election night, he quoted from Lincoln's first inaugural address: "We are not enemies, but friends. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection."
But according to Wilentz, who was a public Hillary Clinton supporter and Obama skeptic in the Democratic primaries, Lincoln is also a convenient political symbol for Obama to wield because Americans of all ideological stripes can find something to admire in him.
"He's a hero with a thousand heroisms," Wilentz wrote in an email, suggesting that Obama was intentionally "blending his own image with the only president (apart from Washington, who lacks lovability) who has attained sainthood."
Thus, Wilentz said, Obama "keeps flexible yet gets canonized before he's even sworn in. An amazing political feat."