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Time for Obama to build a real team of rivals

At the start of the 2008 primary season, Doris Kearns Goodwin, presidential historian, author of Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln and die-hard Boston Red Sox fan, got a call from Barack Obama. “He talked to me… about the book,” Goodwin told Politico, “and then throughout the campaign he kept talking about it, how he would want to put people around him who would argue with him, have a range of opinions.”

So as White House budget director Peter Orszag prepares to become the first cabinet member to leave the administration next month, and rumors of Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s imminent departure make headlines on two continents, the president is now presented with an opportunity to embrace some of Lincoln’s genius. With one -- or two -- positions opening up in Obama’s administration, the talk on Pennsylvania Avenue (and on Wall Street, Lake Shore Drive and Santa Monica Boulevard) ought to focus on the thus-far unfulfilled promise of America’s top Chicago White Sox fan to appoint some Cubs to his inner circle.

The president might start by pulling his presidency away from the Clintonesque path it has followed remarkably closely, especially regarding economic issues. In his review of Obama’s Challenge, Robert Kuttner’s new book, Ari Berman explains:

Rather than breaking with the failures of the past, Obama largely reinforced Washington's entrenched establishment. The book’s lead villain is Robert Rubin, the former treasury secretary under Bill Clinton and Goldman Sachs alum who contaminated Clinton's administration with deregulatory fervor, helped run Citigroup into the ground and managed to emerge from the economic collapse with his prestigious reputation somehow unsullied, as two of his protégés, Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, assumed top economic posts in the Obama administration.

And in the book, Kuttner writes, “Instead of the team-of-rivals model that Obama had often invoked, Obama hired a team of Rubins.” For all his rhetoric about breaking with the past and injecting change into Washington, the president’s response to the Great Recession drew upon the ideas of the very men who had worked to cause the problem in the first place. Instead of broadening the debate by bringing in outsiders, Obama relied on the entrenched ideas of Summers and Geithner. The predictable result was reform that, though more progressive and populist than anticipated, still, as Zach Carter described in The Nation, “won't fundamentally change the relationship between banks and society.”

As foreign policy goes, Obama’s policies in Afghanistan haven’t been as much of a change from his predecessor’s as a slight course correction. Until yesterday, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, recently revealed as a real-life B. A. (Bad Attitude) Baracus, ran the show there, and the overall framework of Obama’s vision remains disconcertingly similar to George W. Bush’s. Last fall, Vice President Joe Biden garnered attention for “standing alone” against Obama’s Afghanistan counterinsurgency plan. Yet as I wrote at the time, Biden’s eyebrow-raising idea, though technically a dissent, was “questionable; it advance[d] the doctrine of preventive military action that would violate the sovereignty of an American ally and that in the past has resulted in the death of innocent citizens.” This is worth revisiting, considering how much attention Biden’s “dissent” received, including a spot on the cover of Newsweek. If this is what passed, and continues to pass, for rivalry in the administration, we’re in trouble.

This is an ideal time for Obama to revisit his original team-of-rivals promise. He should now consider adding some new thinkers, unbound by the Washington consensus on economic or national security, to his inner circle.

By Katrina vanden Heuvel  | June 24, 2010; 2:30 PM ET
Categories:  vanden Heuvel  | Tags:  Katrina vanden Heuvel  
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Yikes! How can you compare Lincoln with Obama?

Obama isn't focused nor is he honest like Abe. The worse part is I don't think Obama believes what he says anymore. Obama, in less than 2 years into his presidency is becoming old news. Everything he touches he disrupts. More and more voters are realizing it. Rather than looking to him for solutions we now see him as part of the problem. He does not bring leadership from himself or his advisers. When an issue arises of great concern we now know we can't rely on Obama to fix it. His solution to solving problems is put to the problem in the hands of government bureaucrats and then tax the hell out of the American people to pay for it no matter how much debt it puts us in. Arizona took it upon themselves to fix their illegal immigration problem since Obama and Napolitano refused to help enforce federal laws. Now other states and cities are following. Why even have a president if he is only interested in creating chaos? He and Biden may be physically at the top, but the states and the voters are starting to move ahead of them since they can't wait for these two to figure out what they are doing.

Posted by: 45upnorth | June 24, 2010 3:26 PM | Report abuse

As demonstrated by the recent Afghan flap Obama has created a team of rivals.

What he actually needs is a steel spine and a set of huevos.

The irresolute manner in which he pondered the Afghan problem lead people such as Joe Biden to believe that decisions could be undone and new ones created if Joe and the rest of the anti-McChrystal crowd just keep digging.

MeChrystal was not insubordinate, he did not advocate the H-Bombing of China ala McArthur; his true crime was revealing his opinion of Joe the Village Idiot and the other clowns in the administration.

Such infighting will always occur in any organization that has a weak, vacillating, and flaccid chief executive officer.

As proven time and again that is exactly the characteristics displayed by the President. He loves to analyze the situation to extreme but is frightened of making decisions.

Posted by: krankyman | June 24, 2010 3:40 PM | Report abuse

Good idea.

I propose David Horowitz to take Emanuel's place in the White House. And Tad DeHaven to replace Orszag.

Posted by: hungrypirana | June 24, 2010 3:48 PM | Report abuse

OK a team of rivals. Replace Biden with Paul Ryan, Gibbs with George Will, Rahm with Rove, and Napolitano with Jan Brewer.

Posted by: jpmn | June 24, 2010 4:47 PM | Report abuse

She isn't comparing Obama to Lincoln. She is merely stating that Obama could learn from Lincoln by appointing people that have views that are not the same as his. Instead of surrounding himself with people who are basically yes men and/or tied to establishment politics, he would be better served to bring in fresh and critical voices into his administration.

Posted by: flounder66 | June 24, 2010 5:52 PM | Report abuse

Maybe liberalism is just too hard. How many 1,000 page bills can you write?

Posted by: scott3 | June 24, 2010 5:54 PM | Report abuse

Read this someplace. Makes sense to me: "...There is the experience factor. President Barack Obama is less experienced than any modern president, and I am not sure he has had any more experience than any president, period. Maybe Millard Fillmore was less experienced. I shall research the matter and report my findings."

Can anyone tell us who had the most experience? Barack Obama or Millard Fillmore?

Millard ... great name.

Posted by: cpameetingbook | June 24, 2010 6:13 PM | Report abuse

More and more, Obama resembles Jimmy Carter. Carter thought that he could do things that were the right thing to do, and that Congress would line up behind him. Congress either refuses to do so, or do their own thing to otherwise commendable ideas (like health care reform) which reflect the ideas of the lobbyists who raise their campaign contributions.

The only way that there will be fundamental political reforms is if the Supreme Court finishes striking down campaign finance laws so that there can again be unrestricted campaign contributions. Congress needs to be accountable to fewer campaign contributors, not more, because then they will be free to make decisions more independently. Right now, they can't do anything without offending some significant block of campaign contributors,and this is why they do nothing year after year, decade after decade.

Think about it, during the era of unlimited contributions, we had the Civil Rights legislation, the Clean Air Act, and many other commendable pieces of legislation that actually helped the average person. Congress did these things not because lobbyists told them to, but because it was good for the country. It's no coincidence that Congress stopped legislating at the same time campaign finance "reform" was instituted. We've had 35 years to realize that campaign finance regulation was a mistake. We can't do any worse than we are already doing if it is repealed; we can only improve.

Posted by: stillaliberal | June 24, 2010 8:04 PM | Report abuse

Obama has turned out to be exactly what was feared - newbie politician that is trying to learn, on the job and to our detriment, how to be a leader and wield power. This "experiment" must end as soon as possible and I hope the next person to be elected President in 2012 will be someone with actual knowledge (not just of Chicago intimidation poliitics), experience, and honor.

Posted by: Georgetowner1 | June 24, 2010 8:08 PM | Report abuse

Even comparings Barry the incompetent boob Obama to Bill Clinton is an impossible stretch. Barry the inept bungler is incapable of getting anything right. At least Bubba was competent.

Miserable failure Obama

Posted by: screwjob16 | June 24, 2010 8:18 PM | Report abuse

It might be nice if he appointed a few who agreed with the same people who elected him into office instead of carrying water for the folks who will never appreciate him.

Posted by: SarahBB | June 24, 2010 8:33 PM | Report abuse


I must meet you in person to see if you're as loopy as your columns make you seem.

It's just possible that you can't write and it makes you seem goofy, but I suspect, you're a very entertaining person to talk to (and I don't mean that in a good way).

Posted by: Ombudsman1 | June 24, 2010 8:43 PM | Report abuse

Obama seemed to have misread "Team of Rivals." Lincoln appointed his leading contenders for the Republican nomination to his cabinet. But unlike Obama, whose contenders, Biden and Clinton, for Lincoln, Seward and Chase represented the radical wing of the Republican party, more anti-slavery than the president was until late 1862.

The positions of Obama, Biden and Clinton are virtually identical, especially on domestic policies. Obama's mistake was appointing not merely too many Clinton administration officials, but mostly centrists and a few moderate neo-cons. He should have appointed some genuine progressives to high-level positions to offer him a greater variety of options, especially about health care, the "stimulus" bill and foreign policy. This should have been a tip-off to anyone paying attention, he had no intention of being a progressive president.

Posted by: Aprogressiveindependent | June 24, 2010 9:03 PM | Report abuse

Obama needs to be more like the 2008 Obama. He has sought too much compromise with the tantruming obstructionists in the increasingly flakey Republican Party.

The extremism of the new GOP candidates and the 'tea party' psychos who support them is being recognized nationwide as being dangerous for our nation.

Posted by: revbookburn | June 24, 2010 9:13 PM | Report abuse

"OK a team of rivals. Replace Biden with Paul Ryan, Gibbs with George Will, Rahm with Rove, and Napolitano with Jan Brewer."

You lost the election. Get over it. Elections have consequences, and one of the good ones is that this particular groups of incompetents, hacks and criminals won't be near power for at least a few more years.

Ah, Ryan. I remember the House Republican budget. The one with no numbers in it. Released on April 1st.

Posted by: Scientician | June 24, 2010 10:42 PM | Report abuse

The moroninchief couldn't name a single white sox player. He is no baseball fan from a look at his arm.

His hometown is NOT chicago... he says hawaii.

This is no midwestern average american.

Just helping explain why he acts like he's from another planet.

Posted by: docwhocuts | June 25, 2010 12:00 AM | Report abuse

krankyman wrote: "What he actually needs is a steel spine and a set of huevos."

Why would President Obama need a set of eggs (huevos). Perhaps you meant cojones???

Posted by: marmac5 | June 25, 2010 12:13 AM | Report abuse

He could appoint Palin and McCain but the party of no will still never vote for anything he proposes.

He had (and still has) a Democratic majority and an American public who wanted change…but he is more worried about being popular among the Republicans base who refuse to listen to a word he says.

Instead of appointing Republicans he should demand that they actually do their jobs and propose some legislative solutions to Americas problems instead of simply voting no on everything.

When Republicans are willing to do their jobs he should think about appointing the ones that come up with good legislation that provides viable alternatives to what his own party can come up with.

Posted by: Southeasterner | June 25, 2010 1:09 AM | Report abuse

Had the press done its work professionally it would have examined Obama's whole political career instead of fawning over him. Obama is, and has always been, a self-promoter. He had no experience in legislating, no record of any distinction in any area. He was not a full tenured law professor. His record was left to the Right to expose and so was regarded as a Rightwing smear when skeptics brought up his lack of experience.
Obama is in way over his head. His policies in all areas are incoherent. He is thin-skinned, unable to communicate and intimidated by the military brass. He is shallow and superficial in his political and intellectual understanding of issues. He has no political skills and is left with little political support even in his own party.
The US will suffer from yet another failed presidency. There is something very wrong with the way we elect our presidents when an inexperience self-promoter can catapult himself into the presidency with no record of any distinction in any area.

Posted by: elsasands1 | June 25, 2010 8:28 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Obama is the most divisive president in my memory. Even Clinton and George W. Bush could garner a few opposition party votes now and again. In your face partisanship causes problems, and they are Obama's now. I do hope he can change course and actually listen and include Republicans in his inner circle. He must also change Pelosi and Reid's modus operandi in Congress. It might also help if he attacked the earmarks that corrupt our Congress, and did something about affirmative action, like redefining disadvantagedness so that people who did nothing wrong stop being penalised. A jobs programme might actually get the country behind him, or at least the millions of unemployed.

Posted by: sailhardy | June 25, 2010 9:27 AM | Report abuse

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