Will Obama’s Team of Rivals Fare Better Than Lincoln’s?

Nov 23, 2008 10:50am

If President-elect Obama indeed appoints Bill Richardson Secretary of Commerce and Hillary Clinton Secretary of State, combined with Vice President-elect Joe Biden, that will be three former primary rivals in his Cabinet.

And as pending White House senior adviser David Axelrod told George Stephanopoulos this morning on This Week, the President-elect "is someone who invites a strong opinions. He enjoys that he thinks that’s an important element of leadership. They are not going to be potted plants in their departments, they are going to be partners and I’m sure that is the message he has given them in their discussions."

It’s not just a question of putting some fellow Democratic colleagues on his team.

Try to think of it this way: Obama is putting in his Cabinet three people who not only (at least at one point) have thought they would be better Presidents than he will be, but they put those thoughts to action by running against him.

Abraham Lincoln’s "Team of Rivals" model that Obama heralds is an interesting one, but it didn’t work out in every case.

Rice University professor Douglas Brinkley says, "it’s based on a false historical analogy."

And writing in the Los Angeles Times, Dickinson University historian Matthew Pinsker writes that some of those appointments caused problems. As when Secretary of State William Seward (a former New York Senator and primary rival) "tried to seize political command from Lincoln during the Fort Sumter crisis…the effect of repeated disloyalty and unnecessary backroom drama from him and several other Cabinet officers was a significant factor in the early failures of the Union war effort. By December 1862, there was a full-blown Cabinet crisis.

"’We are now on the brink of destruction,’ Lincoln confided to a close friend after being deluged with congressional criticism and confronted by resignations from both Seward and Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase…Out of the four leading vote-getters for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination whom Lincoln placed on his original team, three left during his first term one in disgrace, one in defiance and one in disgust.

"Simon Cameron was the disgraced rival, Lincoln’s failed first secretary of war. ["Team of Rivals" author Doris Kearns] Goodwin essentially erased him from her group biography, not mentioning him in the book’s first 200 pages, even though he placed third, after Seward and Lincoln, on the first Republican presidential ballot. Cameron proved so corrupt and inept that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives censured him after he was removed from office in 1862.

"Chase was the defiant rival. As Goodwin acknowledges, the Treasury chief never reconciled himself to Lincoln’s victory, continuously angling to replace him. Lincoln put up with this aggravation until he secured renomination and then dumped his brilliant but arrogant subordinate because, in his words, their "mutual embarrassment" was no longer sustainable.

"Attorney General Edward Bates was the disgusted rival. The elder statesman 67 when he was appointed never felt at home in the Lincoln Cabinet and played only a marginal role in shaping policy. He resigned late in the first term…

"Lincoln was a political genius, but his model for Cabinet-building should stand more as a cautionary tale than as a leadership manual."

– jpt

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