Circular Firing Squad of Rivals?

I am not at all sure that I understand Obama’s reasoning in considering HRC for Secretary of State, but my gut tells me that we may be seeing an instance where politicians get in trouble through the misplaced use of historical analogy, in this case the “team of rivals.” Abraham Lincoln really had to have a highly inclusive cabinet because: a) the Republican party was still not a completely institutionalized entity, and to keep it together in its first shot at power Lincoln needed all the major figures in the party to be represented and; b) the country was at war–a real war–and that almost always calls for inclusivity, even to the point of having governments of national unity. Neither of these factors apply in this case. Obama has massively more control over the Democratic party than Lincoln did, and while we are in an economic crisis, it’s not nearly as bad as the Civil War or WWII. So the conditions that necessitated a “team of rivals” don’t apply. I’m increasingly wondering if this will turn out to be a “circular firing squad of rivals.”

Fundamentally, the president always faces a “principal-agent” problem where his cabinet is concerned. The work of cabinet departments is sprawling, impossible to oversee effectively from the White House. The only way to really make the national government work is to have pretty effective ideational agreement between the president and the people in the power departments, so that the president doesn’t need to be looking over their back to see if they’re screwing him over. Those people don’t have to be friends, but they need to be people who the president knows agree with him on the fundamentals, so that he has confidence they’ll do what he wants without the president needing to supervise them.

The Gates idea makes sense, for example, if Obama has gotten some sort of prior agreement about what it is Gates is expected to do in the (limited) time he’ll be in office. But that’s as much of a risk as I’d be willing to take. And frankly, I just don’t trust Hillary. There is no evidence based on the historical record that she is a competent manager (and plenty of evidence to the contrary–her campaign and the Clinton health care process are only two examples), or has the best interest of our chief executive at heart. So given that the structural conditions that necessitate a “team of rivals” approach don’t apply, I find the argument for this idea extremely weak.

I was joking with someone last week that all of us who write about politics should have to state now what we think the 2012 election recriminations story will be, if Obama loses (not that I’m saying he will–I’m saying, if he does, what do we predict will have done him in). Mine is, “Unfortunate Reading of Goodwin Seen By Observers as Cause of Obama’s Downfall. Obama Agrees, Claims, ‘I Should Have Read Cod: The Fish That Changed The World Instead’.”

Author: Steven M. Teles

Steven Teles is a Visiting Fellow at the Yale Center for the Study of American Politics. He is the author of Whose Welfare? AFDC and Elite Politics (University Press of Kansas), and co-editor of Ethnicity, Social Mobility and Public Policy (Cambridge). He is currently completing a book on the evolution of the conservative legal movement, co-editing a book on conservatism and American Political Development, and beginning a project on integrating political analysis into policy analysis. He has also written journal articles and book chapters on international free market think tanks, normative issues in policy analysis, pensions and affirmative action policy in Britain, US-China policy and federalism. He has taught at Brandeis, Boston University, Holy Cross, and Hamilton colleges, and been a research fellow at Harvard, Princeton and the University of London.