I recently finished reading Team of Rivals, a book about the improbable political rise of Abraham Lincoln. People forget (or in my case, never knew) that Lincoln was the 4th place contender for the Republican nomination in the election of 1860. It’s also often forgotten (or never known) that when Lincoln took office he appointed each of his 3 rivals to cabinet positions. Salmon Chase, who was appointed Secretary of the Treasury, was constantly conspiring against Lincoln. When you read about Chase’s brash efforts to undermine Lincoln you can’t help wonder how Lincoln couldn’t see what was going on.
Lincoln was undermined as well by General McClellan, one of the top Union Generals who was well-regarded until it became evident that he was incompetent. People wanted Lincoln to fire him immediately, but Lincoln put them off. McClellan was finally done in by his own machinations. And Chase rashly offered his resignation thinking Lincoln wouldn’t accept it but instead would appease him by giving him greater reign. To his surprise, Lincoln accepted the resignation. Lincoln came away from both problems with his stature enhanced, and Chase and McClellan’s stature’s were diminished—more so because of Lincoln’s patience.
Most presidential scholars agree that Lincoln was the best president that we ever had. Team of Rivals demonstrates why he was such an amazing statesman and politician. Of course, when he was president many people didn’t trust him, or didn’t appreciate him. Building unity out of deep division is never easy, and the conditions for him were—to say the least—highly unfavorable.
I thought about Team of Rivals when I read today about Obama’s strong denunciation of his pastor. It reminded me of Lincoln (to some extent) in dealing with his disloyal rivals. Even though people wanted him to, Obama didn’t quickly denounce Reverend Wright. Wright was given lots of leeway. But instead of acting prudently he sought the limelight and embarrassed himself. That made it easy for Obama to denounce him.
The ‘patient approach’ doesn’t always work. Sometimes you have to act swiftly and decisively. People criticized Lincoln for not getting rid of Chase and McClellan more quickly. Only in hindsight is it clear to most people that there was great cleverness behind Lincoln’s cautiousness. When tensions are high and people are in a state of extreme distrust, it’s hard to build unity. Building it quickly is almost always impossible. Lincoln understood that better than most people in his era.
Hopefully, the same will turn out to be true of Obama in this era.