The transition drama unfolding before us casts Barack Obama as Abraham Lincoln and Hillary Clinton as William Seward, the defeated rival for the Republican presidential nomination who was enlisted by Lincoln to serve as his Secretary of State. Some may regard this re-enactment as hubris, but maybe it's the kind of statecraft for which only the best of presidents have had sufficient self-confidence.
Whatever the outcome—and I'm betting Hill accepts and Bill passes the vet with Obama's lawyers—it is clear that the president-elect has not only read TEAM OF RIVALS, Doris Kearns Goodwin's portrait of Lincoln's Civil War cabinet; he also seems determined to revive its central act. For the State Department post, his alternatives to Clinton have been John Kerry, who came close to being a president himself, and Bill Richardson, who competed against Obama in the primaries before endorsing him. In short, Obama has compiled a roster of rivals.
Politics, as someone said between Lincoln's era and Obama’s, ain’t bean bag. But sometimes, in the heat of the game, politicians show us not just their moves, but their fundamental purposes. Obama raising Clinton from defeat is such a moment. What does it suggest about the future contours of his presidency?
First, Obama may not be Lincoln—no one is. But thankfully he isn't plagued by the insecurities and self-doubts that have crippled other chief executives. A self-possessed John F. Kennedy could tap his previously far more powerful rival, Lyndon Johnson, for vice president and appoint prominent Republicans to his administration.
Johnson, on the other hand, could hardly bear to be in the same room with Robert Kennedy. After Johnson assumed the presidency, he didn't even want RFK in the same White House. Whether he would have heeded Kennedy's doubts about Vietnam is unknowable. But it is undeniable that Johnson stoked a rivalry because he could not abide a team.
Also on the weak side of the ledger is Richard Nixon, who was alternately paranoid about and disdainful of Ronald Reagan and Nelson Rockefeller; and Jimmy Carter, who appeared to take a self-defeating satisfaction in alienating Ted Kennedy. One thing we know for sure: if your vice president is Spiro Agnew or Dan Quayle, you have a towel carrier, not a teammate. (On the other hand, if your vice president acts like you’re a nuisance and sends signals that he runs the government, you have a different sort of problem.)
On the strong side, Ronald Reagan not only picked George Bush, Sr. as his running mate after a long primary battle, he also tapped Bush's campaign manager, Jim Baker, as White House Chief of Staff. Bill Clinton elevated his long-time southern rival Al Gore to the vice presidency.
However, no one in our time has taken up the notion of a team of rivals as fully as Barack Obama, perhaps because no one had crystallized it in the American imagination until Goodwin wrote her book. Still, what Obama is doing is not the product of a book, but of his character. He repeatedly returned to the idea of Clinton as a possible vice presidential nominee before turning to the Senate's senior Democrat on foreign policy, Joe Biden. Virtually no one took the idea of Secretary of State Clinton seriously until Obama quietly, surprisingly, made the possibility real. Obama is unafraid to be surrounded not only by the best talent, but by the brightest stars. He does not fear being outshone.
Obama's preference for colleagues of stature answers another question currently being pondered by analysts and partisans. Does he intend a presidency of big changes or bite-size ones?
On election night, Obama compared the challenge he sees and the change he seeks to the New Deal, the civil rights revolution, the moon landing and the fall of the Berlin Wall. He is not thinking small. (You don't need a team of rivals—hardly the easiest way to govern—to pursue incrementalism.) He was careful to caution about the "steep" climb ahead, echoing both FDR and JFK in setting a standard by which he wants to be judged—not by problems inherited, but by bold actions taken.
There will be an element of ruthlessness to this. In his personnel choices, Obama has revealed that the mission is more important to him than past service or personal support. His ambitions reach beyond the Clinton Presidency or the marginal agenda that Frum regards as the mandate of 2008. As important as his victory was, Barack Obama doesn’t want the most significant accomplishment of his presidency to be the day he was elected.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- The mystery behind China's aggressive push into space
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- The best places to find love — and lust — according to science
- Here's the schedule very successful people follow every day
- Why GOP reformers are bound to fail
- Sex can't explain the culture war
- The 6 best low-cost smartphones
- The 5 best and worst states for a well-lived life
- How the battle for religious freedom became a nonsensical free-for-all
- This simple hack for slicing cherry tomatoes will astound you
Subscribe to the Week