Team of Allies: Obama’s Second Term Cabinet

Nicholas Vance

After the undeniably historic 2008 election, newly-elected Barack Obama looked to the lessons of history to shape his own cabinet. Following his nomination fight with Hillary Clinton, Obama said in an interview with Joe Klein of Vanity Fair that, if elected, he would model his own administration after the legendary Lincoln cabinet – termed a “Team of Rivals” by noted historian Doris Kearns Goodwin [1]. Lincoln’s cabinet was known as a collection of both his closest allies and estranged enemies. By Lincoln’s design, these leaders were brought together to argue both sides of a policy, effectively raising the level of discussion. Obama perpetuated the perceived value in this, saying “I don’t want to have people who just agree with me. I want people who are continually pushing me out of my comfort zone” [2]. Obama, who many asserted lacked legislative gravitas, had a certain utility in having both Republicans and Democrats in his administration.

Indeed, many of Obama’s cabinet selections in his first administration did incorporate some members who were not politically aligned with the President. Most notably, Hillary Clinton’s appointment as Secretary of State showed Obama’s intent to build the best cabinet for the nation’s needs – not for his own personal and political comfort. After the historically brutal Democratic nomination season which culminated in bitter mutual feelings between Obama and Clinton, Obama threw his entire support behind Clinton despite their sparring over foreign affairs during the primary season. In announcing her appointment, Obama proudly asserted, “She is an American of tremendous stature who will have my complete confidence, who knows many of the world’s leaders, who will command respect in every capital, and who will clearly have the ability to advance our interests around the world” [3].

Obama also kept Bush’s Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates — a Republican with a long history in the intelligence community. Ray LaHood, also a Republican, was tapped as Obama’s Transportation Secretary. From Gates to Clinton, Obama’s intention of picking the most qualified candidates for his first cabinet despite their former allegiances was clear.

However with the departures of the three top cabinet secretaries — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta – second term Obama has been presented the opportunity to reshape his cabinet in a way that would defect from the ideology that characterized the first cabinet. Already, President Obama has announced Senator John Kerry to take over at the State Department, former Senator Chuck Hagel as the nominated Defense Secretary, and White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew as Treasury Secretary. Additionally, Obama has selected his chief counterterrorism advisor John Brennan to take over the CIA in the wake of the Petraeus scandal [4].

Of these selections, President Obama has notably strong relationships with them all. Senator Kerry’s 2004 Democratic convention launched Obama to the national spotlight and the two had close political ties as they sat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee together. Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican (even though the party had abandoned him due to his views on the Iraq War), was known to be one of Obama’s closest allies on the hill. The additional Lew and Brennan nominations, and the lack of Clintonesque appointments, reveal how Obama’s cabinet is quickly changing to one less ideologically inclusive.

As Obama enters his second term in the White House, he no longer requires a “Team of Rivals” who would argue against his policy preferences. In the aftermath of a rocky first term which included the debt ceiling crisis, Benghazi, an historic recession, Fast and Furious, and the fiscal cliff (just to name a few), Obama – now a seasoned leader – is assembling a team of allies who he trusts and believes will most effectively implement his policy views. First term Obama, who carried themes of bipartisanship and cooperation, has been jaded by the bitter political life that consumes Washington. Four years later, second term Obama – like most of America – no longer sees the practical value in including ideological rivals. With only four years left, President Obama has selected his most trusted confidants and allies who will work in building a long-lasting legacy.


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