Appearing on CBS’s “60 Minutes” last Sunday, Barack Obama reiterated a campaign trail promise.
“Yes,” the president-elect told Steve Kroft, he would include Republicans in his cabinet.
Pressed if there would be more than one, Obama declined to elaborate.
As the top tier of his cabinet begins to come into focus, however, it looks increasingly unlikely that Obama will break new ground when it comes to fashioning a bipartisan government.
Instead, he appears to be taking a check-the-box approach that would differ little from the pattern set by predecessors Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
They both made a nod to the opposition party in their cabinet selections, but in the main did not depart from Washington’s to-the-victor-goes-the-spoils tradition in their personnel choices or the policies that flowed from them.
The most likely Republican for a top Obama post, based on published speculation and reporting within his transition team this weekend, is Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who might keep his job in at least the opening phase of the new administration. Obama has said foreign policy is the area most in need of more bipartisanship, and the likely appointment of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) leaves few other openings.
A Gates re-appointment would send a message of caution and continuity within national security circles—not exactly the message that Obama’s most ardent anti-Iraq War supporters are yearning for.
But it would hardly signal a dramatically new style of partisan bridge-building. For one, Gates is not a sharply partisan figure. Before becoming president of Texas A & M, he was a lifelong national security official, spending most of his career in the CIA and heading the spy agency under the first President Bush. For another, he almost certainly would be a transition figure, rather than one expected by the public or colleagues to stay put or be a decisive policymaking voice for a full term.
Nor would there be novelty in Obama reaching to a moderate figure from the opposition party to lead the Pentagon. That was exactly what Clinton did in 1997 when he tapped then-Sen. William Cohen (R-Maine) to be his second-term defense secretary.
In addition to Gates, a senior Obama advisor pointed to two other names previously in circulation as possibilities for top foreign policy jobs: former NATO commander Jim Jones, a prospect to be White House National Security Advisor, and Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.).
Jones also devoted his professional life to national security, rising to become a four-star general and the Commandant of the Marine Corps. Even after retiring from active-duty two years ago, he was tight-lipped about his partisan leanings, declining to tell a Wall Street Journal interviewer which party he belonged to. Jones advised both Obama and John McCain, an old friend, in the presidential campaign.
Hagel is the only politician among the GOP names most commonly mentioned for top jobs, but he fell out of favor with his own party over foreign affairs, and especially the Iraq war. Despite being one of only a handful of senators to support McCain in 2000, Hagel endorsed neither candidate this year. He did, however, take a high-profile trip to the Middle East with Obama and Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) this summer.
Republicans are keeping a close eye on who Obama picks – and doesn’t pick.
"Leader Boehner obviously hopes and expects that the President-elect will keep his promise to include Republicans in his cabinet,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner. “Obama has pledged to govern in a bipartisan way, and we have pledged to work with him when he does."
“Choosing one or two token Republicans in lesser cabinet positions won't pass the smell test,” said Dan Bartlett, who served as communications director and counselor to the current President Bush. “Keeping Secretary Gates would be a huge signal and important governing move.”
Michael Beschloss, the presidential historian, agreed the move would be significant, considering the context in which Obama is taking over from an unpopular and beleaguered president.
“For Barack Obama to appoint somebody tied to George W. Bush’s administration, and especially his foreign policy, would be a significant gesture across the aisle,” he said.
And while the move would not represent anything like a coalition government of the sort common in parliamentary systems, this should hardly come as a surprise.
“It’s very rare that we’ve really had a bipartisan cabinet,” noted Beschloss.
Indeed, a look back at the modern American presidency reflects a pattern of tokenism when it comes to appointing members of the opposite party.
And nearly always those appointed have either been on the outs with their own party or tapped for second-tier posts.
The current President Bush, for example, had a longtime Democratic member of Congress, Norman Mineta, serve in his cabinet – but as a rarely-seen transportation secretary.
Cohen, likewise, came from the moderate wing of his party and differed little from Clinton’s centrist national security instincts.
Jimmy Carter invited James R. Schlesinger, a former cabinet secretary in the Nixon and Ford administrations, to serve as his secretary of energy. But Schlesinger’s departure from the Ford White House was so acrimonious that his walk across the aisle was a pretty short one. The same was true of Democratic Texas Gov. John Connally, who became Nixon’s Treasury secretary as he grew increasingly estranged from an increasingly liberal party that he would abandon two years after entering a GOP administration.
More notable examples of recruiting from the opposition came under John F. Kennedy, who put Republicans C. Douglas Dillon and Robert McNamara in charge of the Treasury Department and the Pentagon, respectively.
Beschloss noted that Kennedy also considered holding over a Republican named Gates at Defense.
Thomas S. Gates Jr served as President Eisenhower’s last Defense Secretary and the young president-elect from Massachusetts thought that at a time of security tensions it may be reassuring to keep a familiar figure at the Pentagon – and perhaps take less political heat off him from congressional Republicans in the process.
The idea was to install Robert F. Kennedy as Gates’ deputy, and train him to take the top slot after a year.
But Joseph P. Kennedy, the president’s father, wanted RFK as Attorney General and some Pennsylvania Democrats thought Gates was eying a statewide run as a Republican in his native state.
Political observers differ on just how important it is for Obama to have voices from the opposite party in his cabinet.
“Any cabinet secretary, regardless of party, will be expected to carry out the new President's agenda,” said Bartlett. “Diverse points of view can be found in many places. It doesn't necessarily make sense that it come from your cabinet.”
And Beschloss noted that some attempts to include members of the opposite party have proved laughable, pointing in particular to Martin Durkin the Democratic plumber who served as Eisenhower’s Labor Secretary for less than eight months in a cabinet that became known as "Nine Millionaires and a Plumber.”
But some believe that is politically essential for Obama to practice the post-partisanship he preached during the campaign.
“The country will be better off (and so will this administration) if we return to the tradition that politics stops at the water's edge,” said a senior official in the Clinton White House. “That's why Clinton chose Bill Cohen. Obama inherits two wars and a country that is deeply divided over them. When you look at all that his administration needs to get done on foreign policy, from Iraq to Iran to climate change, partisanship can only get in the way.”
And, this prominent Democrat said, now is a rare moment when Obama may be able to do what many of his predecessors tried and failed to accomplish.
“A post-partisan politics was the central promise of the Obama campaign -- one that the rest of Washington will try to break, and only a President can force them to keep. The American people desperately want Washington to move beyond the partisan rancor. That's easy to do in the midst of a honeymoon and in the middle of a crisis -- but it will get harder in the heat of legislative battle. Because of his temperament, his majority, and his opponents' disarray, Obama is in an ideal position to change the tone in Washington.”
Steven Schier, a professor at Minnesota’s Carleton College, said keeping Gates at the Pentagon would allow Obama the political room to indulge in tokenism elsewhere.
With Gates, he said, “he can probably get away with a Republican in a second-tier cabinet appointment.”
If Obama comes to regret his loud promises of bipartisan cabinet appointees, this too would be following a familiar path.
Beschloss recalled an infamous declaration from another political insurgent who took on the party establishment and promised to bring sweeping change to Washington.
"If, after the inauguration, you find a Cy Vance as secretary of state and Zbigniew Brzezinski as head of national security, then I would say we failed,” said Hamilton Jordan, Jimmy Carter’s campaign manager, in 1976. “And I'd quit. But that’s not going to happen. You’re going to see new faces, new ideas.”
Vance became Carter’s Secretary of State and Brezinski his National Security Adviser.
Staff Writer Alexander Burns contributed to this report.