As President-Elect Barack Obama moves toward the transition finish line, he has been busy putting his cabinet together, collecting what is now routinely referred to as a “team of rivals.” But this may be more than a reference to the fact that he is trying to avoid “group-think.” The man seems, in fact, to be putting together a team of former-and-would-be pretenders to his political throne.
It is certainly understandable that the party out of executive branch power for the past eight years would find positions for the faithful. Though for a man who campaigned on yes-we-can change there is more than a little irony in many of Mr. Obama’s decisions since the election.
What I find curious is something few seem to be noticing. History tells us that accepting a position in the cabinet, though a great way to serve, is not at all a good move for anyone who has ultimate presidential aspirations.
The last man to move directly from a cabinet position to the presidency was Herbert Hoover.
Mr. Hoover was the long-time and highly effective Secretary of Commerce under Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge and by 1928 was widely seen as the inevitable Republican nominee. He probably brought the best resume ever to the White House. The rest is, as they say, history.
Across the pond in Great Britain, a cabinet post is not only prestigious – it is absolutely essential to anyone desiring to be Prime Minister. Since the days of David Lloyd George who molded the modern role of his nation’s PM during the demanding days of the Great War, all of the realm’s ultimate political leaders have come from the ranks of the cabinet. That’s the way their system works. A lot of real political power resides in the cabinet.
Nearly all British Prime Ministers, since the days of Sir Robert Walpole (c. 1741), have also held the title First Lord of the Treasury – the original designation for the PM’s role. In fact, 10 Downing Street is technically known as the residence of the person holding this title.
The point is that over there one must be a member of the cabinet of the party in power (and the leader of the shadow cabinet of the party out of power) to become Prime Minister. Most recent residents of 10 Downing Street have served as either Chancellor of the Exchequer (their big cabinet kahuna) or Foreign Secretary. Anthony Eden, who succeeded the retiring Winston Churchill in 1955, had been serving as Deputy Prime Minister – also a cabinet position.