Presidents typically say they want to be surrounded by strong-willed people who have the courage to disagree with them. President-elect Obama, reaching out to Hillary Clinton and Republicans, actually might mean it.
Abraham Lincoln meant it. He appointed his adversaries to crucial posts, choosing as war secretary a man who had called him a “long-armed ape” who “does not know anything and can do you no good.”
Richard Nixon didn't mean it. “I don't want a government of yes-men,” he declared. But among all the president's men, those who said no did so at their peril. He went down a path of destruction in the company of sycophants.
It so happens that Obama and Clinton share a reverence for “Team of Rivals,” Doris Kearns Goodwin's book about how Lincoln brought foes into his fold. Clinton listed it during the campaign as the last book she had read. Obama spoke of it several times.
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Now past could be prologue.
Obama is considering Clinton for secretary of state or another senior position, meeting John McCain on Monday to see how his Republican presidential rival might help him in the Senate, and sizing up one-time opponents in both parties for potential recruitment. He made one former presidential opponent, Joe Biden, his running mate.
“I think it reflects a great inner strength on Obama's part that he is seriously considering creating a team of rivals as Lincoln did,” Goodwin said.
“By surrounding himself with people who bring different perspectives, he will increase his options, absorb dissenting views and heighten his ability to speak empathetically to people on different sides of each issue. The challenge, of course, is to ensure that the discussions do not become paralyzing, and that once a decision is made the inner circle accepts that the time for debate is over,” she said.
During the primary campaign, Clinton dismissed Obama as a neophyte who could not be trusted to handle crises and who had not done much more in politics than make fancy speeches. Obama sniffed that “you're likable enough, Hillary.”
Yet she strongly supported Obama in the general campaign, not unlike William Henry Seward.
Seward, the front-runner in the race for the 1860 Republican nomination, was so confident of taking the prize that he went on an eight-month tour of Europe a year earlier, only to see Lincoln vanquish him. Lincoln buried animosities and made him secretary of state.
Lincoln also enlisted Democrat Edwin Stanton as his second war secretary, despite being humiliated by Stanton years earlier when they worked together as lawyers. Other rivals were put in the Cabinet, too.
Lincoln's reasoning: “We needed the strongest men. These were the very strongest men. I had no right to deprive the country of their services.”
None of this has been lost on Obama, who said in May that Lincoln's inclusion of former foes “has to be the approach that one takes.”
At the time, he said he would consider McCain for the Cabinet if that made sense. Now, aides for both men say such a move is not in the works but they will seek other ways to cooperate.
Goodwin says a true team of rivals is difficult to make work in these days of hyperpartisanship, scandal-hungry blogs and raw feelings between parties and factions of the same party from the often nasty campaign. Disharmony in Lincoln's Cabinet was largely kept inside the meetings, exposed years later in memoirs, and that's not how the world works anymore.
Still, she said Obama displayed a temperament in the campaign that could help him pull it off.
“And I believe the country would respond with great enthusiasm, recognizing the great contrast to recent times.”