You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Gates As Obama Secdef?

Joe Klein has a nice column this week, built around this interesting thought:

Obama has said he admires Doris Kearns Goodwin's wonderful Lincoln biography, Team of Rivals. "He talks about it all the time," says a top aide. He is particularly intrigued by the notion that Lincoln assembled all the Republicans who had run against him for President in his war Cabinet, some of whom disagreed with him vehemently and persistently. "The lesson is to not let your ego or grudges get in the way of hiring absolutely the best people," Obama told me. "I don't think the American people are fundamentally ideological. They're pragmatic ... and so I have an interest in casting a wide net, seeking out people with a wide range of expertise, including Republicans," for the highest positions in his government.

But what does that mean? It has become something of a tradition for a President to claim bipartisanship by appointing stray members of the opposing party who either have a similar outlook or are tucked into the most obscure Cabinet positions; even George W. Bush hired Norman Mineta—remember him?—as Secretary of Transportation. Obama seems intent on going beyond that. "I don't want to have people who just agree with me," he said. "I want people who are continually pushing me out of my comfort zone." Obama said he'd be particularly interested in having high-ranking Republicans advising him on defense and national security. "I really admire the way the elder Bush negotiated the end of the cold war—with discipline, tough diplomacy and restraint ... and I'd be very interested in having those sorts of Republicans in my Administration, especially people who can expedite a responsible and orderly conclusion to the Iraq war—and who know how to keep the hammer down on al-Qaeda."

When I asked him specifically if he would want to retain Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense, Obama said, "I'm not going to let you pin me down ... but I'd certainly be interested in the sort of people who served in the first Bush Administration." Gates was George H.W. Bush's cia director—and he has been a superb Secretary of Defense, as good in that post as his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, was awful.

No doubt, partisan Democrats who equate bipartisan government with namby-pamby policymaking are horrified by the thought that Republicans might keep control of the Pentagon. But Gates has been neither ideological nor namby-pamby. ...

No question that there would be some irate liberals if Obama went this route. But it would send a powerful message at the outset of his administration. In particular, it would buy him some real political cover for withdrawing from Iraq, however he decided to execute that. (Conversely, keeping Gates on while deferring withdrawal indefinitely could be an absolute disaster politically.)

--Noam Scheiber