The notion that the incoming Obama’s adminstration constitutes a “Team of Rivals” is one of several means the Obama camp has tried to promote a kinship between Mr. Obama and Abraham Lincoln, since one of the most successful books on Lincoln over the last several years was Doris Kearns Goodwin’s history of the Lincoln Cabinet, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. But it’s actually more of a huff than a hint. Sure, Lincoln called into his Cabinet the two erstwhile front-runners of his party, William Henry Seward (as secretary of state) and Salmon P. Chase (as secretary of the treasury).
But neither Seward nor Chase had ever run a lengthy and brutal campaign directly against Lincoln (as Hillary Clinton and Bill Richardson have done), and all three were in complete agreement on the central policy question of the Lincoln administration, the need to limit the legalization of slavery. And the other members of the Cabinet — Montgomery Blair, Gideon Welles, Caleb Blood Smith, Simon Cameron, and attorney-general Edward Bates — were hardly rivals, or even competitors, of Lincoln’s.
Nor did Lincoln encourage rivalry. For the previous sixty years, presidential Cabinets had been expanding in power and influence, to the point in the 1850s where some Cabinet secretaries (like John B. Floyd, the secretary of war under the helpless James Buchanan) actually overshadowed the presidents they were supposed to serve. Lincoln, by contrast, ruled his cabinet with an iron hand, treating Cabinet secretaries as little more than executors of decisions he had already made, rather than involving them in deliberations as semi-independent players. At the infrequent moments when Seward or Chase did challenge him, Lincoln slapped them back vigorously. In this way, Lincoln reversed the trend toward ever-more-mighty Cabinet secretaries, and established the pattern we have lived with ever since, of Cabinet subservience to presidential decision-making. By inviting real-time “rivals” into his Cabinet, Mr. Obama may find that the resemblance he conjures up may not be that of Lincoln, but James Buchanan.
– Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era & the Director of the Civil War Era Studies at Gettysburg College and the author, most recently, of Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America.