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Assessing Obama's Team Of Rivals



Back in 2008, shortly before Barack Obama became President Obama, he told a reporter that an Obama Cabinet would be a team of rivals, smart people with different viewpoints who would, in Mr. Obama's words, push him out of his comfort zone.

Hillary Clinton, the secretary of State, came to symbolize the idea, but what about the rest of the team? Well, according to Todd Purdum, the national editor at Vanity Fair, the president's Cabinet isn't so much a team of rivals, but rather a team of mascots.

The rivals idea was supposed to be modeled on Abraham Lincoln's Cabinet, a Cabinet that included three men who all ran against Lincoln for the nomination.

William Seward at State, Edward Bates at Justice and Salmon P. Chase at Treasury - all rivals and all men who initially hated their new boss. And it meant Lincoln was actually fighting two Civil Wars.

TODD PURDUM: One with the South and one with his own advisers. But interestingly, especially in the person of Seward, who had initially been quite skeptical of Lincoln, came to be a very dear and trusted friend.

RAZ: So President Obama looks at this example and says that is the mark of a great leader. He can bring his rivals in. He can bring all of these opposing views in. I want this same experience. I want my Cabinet to challenge me. And what happens?

PURDUM: Well, in fact, he appointed one important rival, the biggest rival of all, Hillary Clinton, to what's arguably the most important job, secretary of State, the senior Cabinet position, and that has worked out in a kind of Lincoln-Seward way. I mean, they - I'm not sure they'll ever be fast personal friends, but they have a mutually respectful relationship. And everyone, I think, thinks Secretary Clinton has had a remarkably effective run at the State Department. He also, of course, made Joe Biden one of his rivals, his vice president.

But after that, he really has, largely, a team of people who are quite loyal and who are not necessarily always on his side, but in the case of, say, Janet Napolitano, very early on his side, when it hurt her with, for example, women and Secretary Clinton to come out so early for Obama.

RAZ: So are there any Cabinet secretaries in this administration who are challenging the president and pushing him beyond his comfort zone? Or is that idea basically dead?

PURDUM: It seems pretty clear that Secretary Clinton, on the question of what to do about Libya and maybe some other questions, pushed him pretty hard. It's clear that there are any number of Cabinet people who are willing to give it to him straight. It's just that he doesn't have the Cabinet together in a meeting in the Cabinet room in the way that, say, Lincoln would've or FDR would've or even JFK would've to consult on a range of policy questions perhaps outside the sphere of influence of the individual secretary.

RAZ: So essentially what you argue is that going forward, the people who are really going to matter in presidential administrations are the advisers who work in the west wing of the White House and that Cabinet secretaries will be maybe great technocrats, but in reality, it's, as you say, going to be a demographically balanced assembly of team mascots with increasingly ill-defined rolls.

PURDUM: I think that's possible. And what's especially sort of puzzling about this Cabinet is it's actually full of experienced elected officials. Ken Salazar, a senator from a red state, Colorado; Kathleen Sebelius, the highly regarded governor of Kansas; Janet Napolitano, one that's a Democrat in Arizona where it's not that easy to do statewide.

And it was thought - and, indeed, now as the campaign heats up, these Cabinet officers have been sent out to campaign. It's tempting to wonder how much more influential they might be as campaigners if they'd had larger profiles with their own issues and the public was more familiar with them from seeing them on "Meet the Press" or hearing them on NPR.

RAZ: Who do you think ultimately wants weak Cabinet secretaries, the president or his advisers?

PURDUM: I think more his advisers. One of the things that was puzzling to many Democrats in the first couple of years of the Obama administration was that the president and the White House team had been unable to find more effective surrogate voices and salespeople for their policies. So the result was the president himself was put out there constantly with the result possibly that he was exhausted. And also that, you know, there's a limit to how much anyone can take of any one person. And I think, you know, perhaps the president got a little overexposed.

RAZ: That's Todd Purdum. He's Vanity Fair's national editor. His new article is called "Team of Mascots." It's in the latest issue of the magazine. Todd, thanks so much for coming in.

PURDUM: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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