The newly elected president was exhausted when he went to bed at 2 a.m. “The excitement which had kept him up through the long campaign had passed away, and, he was now oppressed with the load of responsibility that was upon him.”
“From his earliest days in politics, he had craved the opportunity to accomplish important deeds. In modern parlance, he wanted to make a difference; yet he now understood that his country was entering a most perilous time.” On a blank card, he soon wrote down the names of seven persons he wanted as the core of his cabinet.
This description, from “Team of Rivals,” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, recalled the election of another young, “inexperienced” American president from Illinois — 148 years ago. As recounted in the book, Abraham Lincoln’s first task in a not dissimilar environment of crisis resembles that of Barack Obama today: to choose his key advisers.
In 1860, Lincoln had a remarkably long period before inauguration — four months. Even today’s 75 days is far too long. But if a young republic faced a critical test of leadership in 1860, the stakes are just about as high today.
Given the grave state of affairs economically, appointment of a secretary of the treasury remains the first priority. And the president-elect has several very competent candidates.
For foreign policy, the new president has four crucial positions to fill: secretary of state, secretary of defense, national security adviser and national intelligence director. And Obama appears prepared to ignore partisanship and follow Lincoln, who chose three bitter rivals for his cabinet.
Speculation about Hillary Clinton as secretary of state is the most tangible evidence. And Clinton could be a savvy, tenacious secretary, if her well-known spouse could stick to, say, helping emerging countries. I would argue Obama needs to even go beyond Lincoln’s approach in choosing the team to advise him on how to deal with two wars, Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, Pakistan’s crumbling authority, terrorism, our dependence on foreign oil, global warming, and, overall, to put American engagement with the world on a new and more constructive footing.
Here are several highly respected non-Democrats who have the qualities needed — strategic vision, pragmatism, sense of the national interest — to help the new president restore American leadership after eight years of incompetence, arrogance and unilateralism.
Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican who criticized the Iraq war and the Bush administration early on. A Vietnam veteran, a successful businessman who traveled with Obama to Iraq and Afghanistan, he would make an excellent secretary of state if he has a strong deputy to run the department.
Robert Gates could stay at Defense, perhaps for a year, as Obama moves to draw down U.S. forces in Iraq without undermining a fragile transition. The former CIA director has served ably since replacing Donald Rumsfeld. He has deftly handled Russia’s bullying, focused intensely on Afghanistan, and recognized that the State Department needs lots more money and personnel.
Gen. James Jones, a former Marine who recently headed NATO, has proven strategic skills and political instincts. A colleague says “Democrats think he’s a Democrat, Republicans think he’s a Republican.”
Lastly, Richard Armitage, Colin Powell’s No. 2 at State. He is a tough, no-nonsense leader who would get real results if he headed the myriad intelligence agencies.
By selecting one or two Republicans or independents, much may be made of the old charge that Democrats can’t handle national security. But George W. Bush and Dick Cheney — plus Sarah “I-see-Russia” Palin — have wiped out any Republican advantage there.
Democrats deserve a clean break with the past eight years — and the legacy left them by a highly partisan White House. But these are unusual times. Obama must redefine our foreign policy so that effective diplomacy is the main face of the United States abroad, replace fear and aggression as the framework for our foreign policy with confidence and engagement, get out front of global change and aspirations rather than deny climate change, develop a serious multifaceted campaign against terrorism, not a “bring ‘em on” bravado.
Who better to tackle this challenge than smart, broad-minded people, regardless of party, who really understand the relationship between diplomacy and force, recognize the complexities of the 21st century and care deeply about restoring the respect of the rest of the world for the United States.
Fred Hill, of Arrowsic, was a foreign correspondent for The Baltimore Sun and worked on national security issues for the State Department. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.