Barack Obama once told a journalist that the one book he would bring to the White House – besides the Bible – would be a bestseller about President Lincoln’s inclusive leadership style, titled “Team of Rivals.”
The book's author, presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, makes the case that by bringing political opponents into his cabinet , Lincoln was able to solicit dissenting voices, make his enemies his allies, and lead the country through its greatest crisis.
As bad as the economy may appear in the US right now, Americans are not warring with each other -- though it has sometimes felt that way in these years of political polarization.
Still, an historic election that delivered America’s first African-American president coincides with a historic period of severe challenges. These times require teamwork between the parties.
Given the gains by Democrats in Congress and their recapture of the White House after eight years, it might be tempting for the victors to say “my turn,” and then plow ahead without regard to the other side.
But the national sacrifice needed to meet the challenges of today and not-so-distant tomorrow will not be small, and will affect all Americans. Thus, the leadership to steer through these crises will have to embrace all Americans.
If the US is to conclude two land wars and revive its military, rescue its fragile economy, raise its educational performance, reduce greenhouse gases, move away from oil, rebuild its crumbling infrastructure -- and, need a breath? -- make healthcare more widely available and affordable, it will necessitate more than turning down the thermostat (a lifestyle change suggested by Obama).
During the campaign, neither candidate really leveled with voters about the kinds of difficult policy tradeoffs facing Americans. But they at least both recognized the need for bipartisanship.
Republican John McCain constantly referred to his Senate record of reaching across the aisle, and in his concession speech, he asked his supporters to find compromise with the new president. And it was Mr. Obama’s unity message four years ago that started this unknown on his remarkable path to the White House. “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America: There is the United States of America,” he told the Democratic convention in 2004.
Historically, crises inspired presidents to reach out to rivals. In 1940, after the Nazis had rolled over much of Europe, Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed a Republican conservative to be his war secretary. When Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights bill verged on failure in the Senate, he turned to his Republican friend, the minority leader Everett Dirksen.
Obama says he will bring Republicans into his cabinet, “and not just as show pieces.” He advocates a “return to a tradition of nonpartisan national security,” though he is not shy about the benefits of one-party rule in allowing a president to “move on some big issues.”
Still, the Democratic majority won’t last very long, he told CBS news anchor Katie Couric this week, “if Democrats come in and say to themselves, “it’s our turn and we’re just going to go crazy doing whatever it is that we feel like.’ ”
Obama has inspired millions with his message of hope and change. Now the rhetoric of national unity meets the road of reality. May the new president, like Lincoln, bring rivals onto a team that works even for those who didn’t vote for him.
As Obama quoted the great emancipator, "While passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection."