Will Lincoln's 'team of rivals' play today?

Some historians say Obama may be making error

President-elect Barack Obama has acknowledged that he was strongly influenced by Doris Kearns Goodwin's book ''Team of Rivals,'' which details Abraham Lincoln's decision to include political foes in his first Cabinet. But as Obama considers some of his own rivals, like Hillary Clinton, for positions, some historians are suggesting that the Lincoln model was dysfunctional. President-elect Barack Obama has acknowledged that he was strongly influenced by Doris Kearns Goodwin's book ''Team of Rivals,'' which details Abraham Lincoln's decision to include political foes in his first Cabinet. But as Obama considers some of his own rivals, like Hillary Clinton, for positions, some historians are suggesting that the Lincoln model was dysfunctional. (Jae C. Hong/ASSOCIATED PRESS/FILE)
By Joseph Williams
Globe Staff / November 21, 2008
  • Email|
  • Print|
  • Single Page|
  • |
Text size +

WASHINGTON - As Barack Obama considers whether to include former rival Hillary Clinton in his Cabinet, the president-elect is emulating his role model, Abraham Lincoln, who boldly put political adversaries in his Cabinet, hoping to forge a strong presidency through the heat of conflicting ideas.

But historians argue that Lincoln's model, described in the best-selling book "Team of Rivals," by Doris Kearns Goodwin, is a high-risk strategy for Obama, one that could alienate his allies and sow dysfunction inside the White House. Few modern presidents have made political adversaries Cabinet appointees, in this view, and even fewer could make the arrangement work.

"I question the entire concept of 'Team of Rivals' being sound," said Douglas Brinkley, a Rice University historian and author. In Obama's case, he said, "It's not organic, and it's not realistic. It's a very ethereal idea being played on a high level, and it's based on a false historical analogy."

Indeed, one historian argued in a newspaper column that Goodwin's book sidesteps the rancor inside Lincoln's Cabinet and does not mention that the president himself struggled to control the turmoil.

"The Cabinet dynamics were kind of poisonous," said Matthew Pinsker, a Civil War specialist at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. "It's nothing I think President Obama would want to emulate in his administration."

Goodwin said yesterday that there is no question the dissent Lincoln faced at times bordered on dysfunction, but added: "I think the most important thing to realize about the outcome of Lincoln's decision is that it produced the three goals that mattered the most: He won the war, he saved the union, and he ended slavery. That's the fun part that I enjoyed, to see how complicated it was in that inner circle."

Obama has a well-known affinity for Lincoln, whose legacy is dominated by the debate and war over slavery. Obama has a portrait of Lincoln in his Senate office, quotes him in speeches, and has followed Lincoln's footsteps from the Illinois Senate to the White House.

Obama, who is studying Lincoln's writings to prepare for the presidency, has acknowledged the influence of Goodwin's book, which details Lincoln's decision to include political foes in his first Cabinet. In a 2007 interview, Obama called it "a remarkable study in leadership" and said it would be his choice if allowed just one book for his White House library.

Lincoln, he said, "was confident enough to be willing to have these dissenting voices and confident enough to listen to the American people and to push them outside of their comfort zone."

By choosing Joe Biden, who sharply criticized him during the presidential primaries, as his running mate in August, Obama indicated he will follow through on his pledge to bring former competitors into his administration. Since the election, he has met with Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, another former primary rival, about the secretary of state post and hosted Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican he defeated for the presidency.

Obama's talks with Hillary Clinton last week, however, and the prospect that he will name her secretary of state, raised eyebrows.

Though they're now allies, Clinton and Obama engaged in a long, bitter fight for the nomination, causing a split within the Democratic Party that took months to heal. In increasingly nasty blows, Obama repeatedly hammered Clinton for supporting the Iraq invasion, and a hard-hitting Clinton ad suggested Obama was not ready to handle a 3 a.m. crisis call in the White House.

In a column in the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday, Pinsker wrote that of the four top political competitors Lincoln appointed - Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of War Simon Cameron, Attorney General Edward Bates, and Secretary of State William Seward - only Seward survived Lincoln's first term. By the time Lincoln prepared for reelection, Chase, Cameron, and Bates had resigned, Pinsker wrote, "one in disgrace, one in defiance, and one in disgust."

Under heavy criticism from both political foes and allies, Lincoln wrote to a close friend that the infighting was so bad his government was "on the brink of destruction," Pinsker wrote.

In an interview with the Globe this week, Pinsker said history should guide Obama.

"The biggest lesson [Lincoln] offers is a cautionary tale," Pinsker said. "Picking rivals for your Cabinet comes with a cost. The cost is worth it in some cases, but in some cases it's not."

Brinkley, the Rice historian, said Obama does not need to mimic Lincoln because he won 52.8 percent of the vote - a national mandate - while Lincoln won with 39 percent of the vote. He didn't have a majority of the American people on his side. Most good presidents will select one or two opposition members for their Cabinet, he said, "but many Democrats voted for Obama to get rid of the age of Bush and the age of Clinton."

Obama's allies "spent the last two years working quadruple-time to derail the Clinton machine, and now [the Clintons] are becoming the toast of the town again," Brinkley said. "I don't quite understand the logic here, unless it's about disarming as many of your enemies as you can. Call me crazy, but if I'm going to make decisions, I want to reward the people who had my backside."

Some recent presidents have kept their rivals close but with limited success, Brinkley said. He cited President Kennedy's choice of Lyndon Johnson, a powerful Southern senator, as his vice president, noting that Johnson had a hard time adjusting to his role as Kennedy's subordinate and didn't get along with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara or other Kennedy loyalists.

"So what happens from that after Kennedy was killed?" Brinkley said. "We got a really screwy Vietnam policy. They weren't Johnson people. They were still serving Kennedy."

Goodwin, however, said Pinsker's critique of Lincoln supports her overall thesis: that the president picked the best people he could find, despite their flaws, and whether or not they disagreed with him. "Yes it was difficult at times, but he wasn't in the presidency to find people who would echo him."

The Lincoln Cabinet's months-long debate over emancipation proves the wisdom of that decision, Goodwin said. By the time Lincoln ended the debate and decided in favor of ending slavery, his opponents at least knew he had considered their points of view.

Multiple viewpoints "can be paralyzing, but not so if the leader understands that he has to make a decision," Goodwin said. "They had their say. He at least could acknowledge where they were coming from."

Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said it's erroneous to assume Obama is sticking closely to Lincoln's "team of rivals" approach.

"That's not how you put together a Cabinet," said Hess, author of "What Do We Do Now? A Workbook for the President-Elect." "It's something that Abraham Lincoln did in 1860. That doesn't mean that he's doing the same thing."

Nevertheless, Goodwin said, she is pleased that her book and the president-elect have spurred debate about something that happened 128 years ago.

"How great it is having people debate something from history," she said. "It shows that, more than anything, this president values history. If a president values history, and we're all debating, it means you're adding a whole dimension to your leadership."

  • Email
  • Email
  • Print
  • Print
  • Single page
  • Single page
  • Reprints
  • Reprints
  • Share
  • Share
  • Comment
  • Comment
  • Share on DiggShare on Digg
  • Tag with Save this article
  • powered by
Your Name Your e-mail address (for return address purposes) E-mail address of recipients (separate multiple addresses with commas) Name and both e-mail fields are required.
Message (optional)
Disclaimer: does not share this information or keep it permanently, as it is for the sole purpose of sending this one time e-mail.