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On Obama's Team of Rivals

After Barack Obama's historic election victory, the media have switched from dissecting polls and envisioning plausible paths to 270 to speculating about his cabinet appointees. Much attention has been paid to the "team of rivals" concept Obama claimed to want to emulate. This approach to governance was popularized by President Lincoln and involves turning defeated and potential rivals into allies by appointing them to White House and other senior-level positions.

Partisan Democrats hoping for President-elect Obama to solely tap loyal Democrats for his administration and ram through strongly Democratic policies may be disappointed by his bipartisan overtures, but Obama may stand to benefit more from this approach to governance than he would if he simply stocked his White House with liberal Democrats whose loyalty to him did not waver during the campaign.

There are several advantages to including political rivals in Obama's cabinet. First of all, it forces his rivals to become political partners and cease being political competitors. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for example, cannot filibuster President Obama's legislation in the Senate. Advisor John McCain cannot badmouth President Obama the way Republican Senator John McCain can. A Republican who is defending Obama's administration is one less Republican who is criticizing it.

Secondly, a bipartisan team of rivals means that both political parties would share political successes and failures in Obama's administration. Republicans are currently locked out of power in Washington. As the minority party with little accountability, they don't have to do much more than take potshots at Obama and the Democrats. But with a bipartisan Obama White House, Republicans would have to be more selective with their criticisms because they may end up politically wounding popular members of their own party.

Obama campaigned on the themes of change and bipartisanship. Including Republicans and rival Democrats in his administration would show that he is delivering on this campaign promise. Voters' trust is the most precious resource Obama has. Keeping this campaign promise would keep this trust from being squandered. And it would stand in stark contrast to the hyperpartisanship that has characterized Washington for the past 10-15 years. And if Republicans refuse to join Obama's administration, they would be the ones who looked like they weren't being bipartisan. Having everyone serve together would also reinforce the idea that in these difficult and uncertain economic times, Americans of all political persuasions are all in this situation together. That could be a political boon to Obama because voters are more likely to support or trust a cause or an administration if they believe they have a stake in it.

One more benefit of tapping Republicans to serve in Obama's administration is that it could be a backdoor way of increasing Democratic majorities, particularly in the Senate. If Obama tapped McCain to be Secretary of Defense or Secretary of Homeland Security, for example, McCain would have to relinquish his Senate seat. Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, would then be responsible for appointing his successor. Oregon Senator Gordon Smith would have been another potential appointee, but he lost his reelection bid to Democratic challenger Jeff Merkley.

Additionally, keeping Republicans in the White House would help prevent Obama and his Democratic allies from veering too far to the left. Republicans are hoping that President-elect Obama and congressional Democrats overreach by enacting policies that are too far to the left. This is not to say that left-wing policies are bad. However, Obama and the Democrats are more likely to have an extended grip on power if they are more gradual in their approach.

Liberalism is still a dirty political word (note how many liberals define themselves as "progressives"), so if voters have their fears of a "radical leftist agenda" confirmed by Democrats' overreach, Republicans will hasten their return to political competitiveness in 2010. Conservatism currently has a black eye even if Bush is not a true conservative as Republicans claim, so this is a good opportunity for liberalism to be redefined for an electorate whose memories of the Democratic policies of the 1960s are increasingly hazy.

But because the past few years have been characterized by political gridlock, it may very well turn out that voters don't really care as much about liberal government or conservative government, but rather competent and efficient government. And that is the opportunity for President-elect Obama and congressional Democrats. If Democrats (and liberals by extension) are able to deliver meaningful results for the public, that will do far more to burnish their image and strengthen their political hand than any bit of political sloganeering.

7 comment(s):

The Political and Financial Markets Commentator said...

Enjoyed the blog. I found you on BlogBurst where I just listed my blog. Keep up the good work.

Mike Haltman
The Political and Financial Markets Commentator

Brett said...

One thing to keep in mind, Anthony, is that Lincoln picked the "Team of Rivals" because he had no choice. He was a minority President (meaning he won because the Democratic Party split on North-South lines), governing a new, weak party with strong factions (like that of Seward's) who didn't know him or really trust him. He had to give them positions of power, and it worked both because he was good at managing them, and because his administration had the overarching cause of the Civil War to push them together.

Obama doesn't have that, and I think it's dangerous to base his ability to manage a divided Cabinet on how close he supposedly is in terms of Lincoln. There have been plenty of "Teams of Rivals" that failed and were riven with acrimony, and Obama's could be no exception. This is particularly the risk if he appoints elected Republicans to his Cabinet - there is going to be a temptation on their part to reach outside of the Cabinet and Obama Administration for political support in settling both their squabbles in the Administration, and their ambitions outside of it.

It's good to have dissent in the Cabinet, but not too much of it (and not when it is a matter of politically ambitious folk using the Cabinet as a launching pad). Think on some of our better Secretaries of State over the Cold War - George Schulz, Henry Kissinger, etc. None of them held electoral office, and all of them enjoyed a personal relationship with their boss. Does Obama have anything like that?

S.W. Anderson said...

Loyal, liberal, partisan Democrat here, but I'm comfortable in principle with Obama bringing Democrats of diverse viewpoints and even a Republican or two into his Cabinet and White House team.

I'm not anxious to see McCain in there because, frankly, he's temperamental, erratic and squishy on the actual facts of various matters.

I absolutely don't want to see Joe Lieberman in there because all he deserves is the Zell Miller Rat in the Woodpile Award. (I'd call it the Quisling Award, but sadly, too few people would have any idea what I was talking about.)

Robert Gates or Chuck Hagel? No problem.

"Secondly, a bipartisan team of rivals means that both political parties would share political successes and failures in Obama's administration."

I urge you to check that one with Mitch McConnell and John Boehner. Probably Newt Gingrich, too. But be prepared to be laughed out of the room.

"As the minority party with little accountability, they (Republicans) don't have to do much more than take potshots at Obama and the Democrats."

If Republicans were to actually take on any accountability at all, for anything, ever — something they have not, do not and I predict will not do — we would truly witness an epic, watershed event in modern American politics.

I don't know about you, AP, but I'm not holding my breath waiting for the Rhapsody to get under way, for the Palestinians and Israelis to become the best of friends or for Republicans to accept accountability for any of their many screw-ups.

As for Republicans taking potshots at Democrats, come on. Shake a sleeping House Republican and see what he or she says waking up. Seriously.

FWIW, I don't think anyone has to worry about Obama going overboard, ramming through an ultraliberal set of programs and policies. If I read him correctly, he's too moderate and pragmatic for that.

S.W. Anderson said...

Brett, IMO our best Cold War secretaries of state were George Marshall and Dean Rusk.

Thomas said...

I am a little amazed that some of Obama's supporters just did not seem to hear what he has been saying all along. He has constantly said he wants to be post partisan. That means not seeing people based on party membership but on expertise instead. Now that Obama is fulfilling his campaign pledge, some on the left are angry about it.

Anthony Palmer said...

Thanks for the comment. BlogBurst is one of the better blog aggregate sites out there, so there's a lot of good stuff out there. Thanks for dropping by.



A part of me wonders if Democrats are still unsure if it's "cool" to be a Democrat. They're still wondering if the only reason why they're in power is because they're "not Republicans." I think if Obama stocked his cabinet with a bunch of lefties, the GOP would try and use that to scare the electorate again into thinking radicals were taking over the nation. I think Obama's doing something that makes for brilliant PR for the Democratic Party and liberalism in general. It appears mature and conciliatory.

I don't know how well it will work in practice, but it seems to be playing out fine so far. Rather than shutting out 46% of the electorate, he's at least giving them some voice in his administration. I think that's commendable.



There are basically two kinds of Republicans, IMO:

1. Your bipartisans. They are definitely conservative, but they see nothing wrong with cooperating with their political opposition.

2. Your hardliners. They are definitely conservative as well, but they will vote with their party almost all the time.

Obama is reaching out to the first group. The second group will never be on board. The second group consists of your McConnells, your Inhofes, and your Shelbies. Of course, Democrats fall into these two categories too (maybe even more, given the swelling of the Blue Dog ranks). But I think any bipartisan overtures would be well received now. Most unengaged voters don't think about these issues the way you and other readers here do, so they don't know the difference between Chuck Hagel and Pat Roberts. But they do know that Hagel is a Republican, so if Obama is making nice with him, that should play well in these voters' minds. We'll see.


I'll comment on the other comments a bit later. Thanks a lot everyone.

Anthony Palmer said...


I think what a lot of folks on the left want is for Obama to govern the way Bush did--representing a narrow section of your political base. Bush made social conservatives and anti-tax conservatives very happy with his policies, but ended up making the rest of the nation angry with him. I think Obama is doing something very wise by realizing that even though he won the largest Democratic victory since LBJ, he's trying to increase his leverage by bringing a few moderates and Republicans on board to govern as a coalition. The liberals will get most of what they want, but they won't get it all at once. If they are mature enough to be patient, they may be able to enjoy the fruits of Democratic presidencies for years to come because the GOP has been marginalized to the South and the rural Mountain West.

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