There are many reasons to admire Abraham Lincoln. His ability to bring former political rivals into the Cabinet and to manage their ambitions was one of his most remarkable political accomplishments. Whether Lincoln merely wanted to keep his enemies closer than his friends or whether he saw unique political gifts in the men he chose, it worked. Doris Kearns Goodwin told the rest of us how well it worked in her magisterial book Team of Rivals.
Barack Obama is a man of extraordinary self-confidence. His successful campaign, taking on and defeating the Clinton machine and then becoming the first Democrat to win a majority of the American electorate since 1976, suggests that his confidence is well placed. But, thinking that he can re-create Lincoln’s "Team of Rivals" is crazy.
The Cabinet is no longer a centerpiece of decision-making. Lincoln’s collaborators could debate policy, come to agreement, and even those who did not fully win the debates were reconciled in some measure by the group decision-making process itself. All left invested in the ultimate outcome because they would need the support of their colleagues on subsequent decisions.
In today’s political world, Cabinet officials do not make policy, they implement it. The imperial presidency has made the White House chief-of-staff more important than any individual Cabinet member: He or she controls access to the President and can make sure the President hears contrary views. If Cabinet officers disagree with a policy the President adopts, the fastest way to make their resentments known is not to try and re-litigate the decision through the White House staff. The best way is to take it to the press.
The press today, unlike the press in 1860, runs on a 24-hour news cycle. They are greedy for information. The leak-proof, no drama quality of the Obama campaign was a marvel to behold but it has already begun to crack in the first weeks after the election. The news of Rahm Emanuel’s selection as chief-of-staff leaked before the Congressman had taken the job. The prospect of Sen. Clinton becoming Secretary of State is on all the cable news shows, yet it remains only a prospect.
In selecting Cabinet members, Obama should look first and foremost for people capable of managing their departments. One of the reasons George W. Bush’s approval ratings are in the tank, and those of the GOP with him, is that his administration was filled with incompetents. The dysfunction at FEMA captured the attention of a horrified nation in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the dumb-struck expression on Hank Paulson’s face the last few months has done little to restore confidence to the market.
So, admire Lincoln by all means President-Elect Obama. More than any president, Lincoln gave lucid and dignified expression to the dialogue between liberalism and Christianity that is the core of the American national character, and he employed that expression to bind up a nation wounded firstly by slavery and secondly by war. But the high flattery of imitation should exclude Lincoln’s manner of dealing with his Cabinet. Ms. Goodwin’s book notwithstanding, history is the one thing that does not repeat itself.
Michael Sean Winters