No President has ever taken office facing the challenges Abraham Lincoln faced. Sixteen states threatened to leave the Union should the Republican take office. The festering sore of slavery had led to the point where it was no longer possible to survive as a nation. Without mentioning the issue directly, all the candidates (there were four who ran in 1860) made the expansion of slavery in to territories and the survival of the Union central, and Lincoln's victory solidified southern hostility to remaining in a country that refused to bend to its policy preferences. With the first shots in what would become our Civil War already having been fired in Kansas and Nebraska, the prospects for a peaceful resolution of the differences between slave and free state was non-existent.
Lincoln himself faced incredible odds at anything like success. Indeed, other than one term as a House member, his resume was thin indeed. While he impressed many with his run against Illinois' venerable Senator, Stephen Douglas (who had also been his rival for the Presidency in 1860), he lost that contest. In his own party he was perceived as weak, malleable, and many thought he wouldn't make it through his first year in office. Events seemed to outpace his ability to control them as, even before he took office, the first of the southern states officially seceded and formed the nascent Confederate States of America, appointing Mississippi's veretan Senator Jefferson Davis interim President in lieu of an election.
Along with a stirring revolt in the cotton belt, Lincoln had the monumental task of dealing with the personalities in his cabinet. Being far more clever than anyone could have imagined from his limited experience, he understood that the best way to ensure his continuance in office was to keep all his rivals together, where their bickering and massive egos would cancel one another out, leaving him in control.
The only other challenge - and it would be a daunting one for years - was military leadership. The top general of the army was the aged hero of the War of 1812, Winfield Scot. He ran through a succession of miserable failures, lost battles, and the invasion of Pennsylvania by Lee's Army of Northern Virginia until he noticed fellow Illinoisan Ulysses Grant had a knack for victory, most famously in the siege of Vicksburg, MI, achieved at the same time Lee's Army was defeated in Gettysburg. While Grant had many faults, including a struggle with the bottle he would lose in the end, he had onee thing going for him - he could win. Many southern sympathizers have castigated Grant's profligacy with human life in several of his battles, especially in his campaign across Tennessee, but should one consider other generals, his losses were only larger because he continued to press for victory when other Union generals would blanch at the losses faced and retreat. Considering Lee's losses at Gettysburg, Petersburg, and even at the Confederate "victory" at Antietam, it seems hardly fair to think of Grant as holding life cheaply.
Lincoln's final challenge, as it turned out, was making sure he won re-election in 1864. After winning, he delivered an inaugural address that, other than FDR's first and Kennedy's, lives on in the memories for the ringing phrases of hope for a post-war reconciliation that would not be, thanks to the bullet from John Wilkes Booth's pistol that robbed the United States of the promise of strong leadership in the face of the rage of radical Republicans.
As we face the challenges ahead of us, we should remember that another man faced far worse trials, and came through to live forever in the hearts of his fellow citizens as the greatest (yet) to lead us.
Point of Personal Privilege: After being shot, Lincoln was carried through a stage door to a house across from the entrance. It happened to be a doctor's house, named Safford. Lincoln would die there, after lingering unconscious for several hours.