American Presidents, Obama

A New Year

Faced with a difficult re-election campaign in 1940 – he was after all seeking an unprecedented third term – Franklin D. Roosevelt did the politically unthinkable. He named two extremely prominent Republicans to his Cabinet.

One appointee, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, (that’s him with Gen. George Marshall) had actually served as Secretary of State in the Cabinet of Republican Herbert Hoover as well as serving previously as Secretary of War under Republican William Howard Taft. Stimson was an absolute pillar of the GOP establishment.

The other GOP appointee, Navy Secretary Frank Knox, had been the Republican vice presidential candidate on the ticket that ran against FDR just four years earlier. Roosevelt thumped the GOP ticket in 1936, but the move to bring Knox into the administration was a significant gesture with lasting political and policy implications. Think about Barack Obama finding a Cabinet spot for Sarah Palin. OK, bad example.

Nevertheless, talk about bipartisanship.

Roosevelt, a master political manipulator, sprung his bipartisan surprise on the country just days before the 1940 Democratic convention. Many of the party faithful were stunned and when they thought about it outraged. How could a sharply partisan Democrat on the eve of a national election turn two of the most important Cabinet jobs over to two such partisan Republicans, many Roosevelt allies wanted to know?

The answer was pretty simple. Roosevelt needed bipartisan cover to begin to get the United States on more of a war footing. He needed Republican support to institute the first peace time draft in the nation’s history and  to find a way to aid Great Britain in its desperate fight against Nazi Germany. Stimson and Knox were well-known “interventionists” who FDR could count on to battle for the president’s foreign policy priorities even in the face of their partisan backgrounds.

President Obama would be wise to do something similar at the dawn of his second term as he looks to replaces Leon Panetta at the Defense Department and Timothy Geithner at Treasury, among others.

By all accounts Obama has been thinking about former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel for the Pentagon job, but Hagel is already proving to be a lightening rod, primarily for comments he made years ago about an openly gay ambassador nominee in the Clinton Administration. Still, a bipartisan group of former National Security Advisers have endorsed a Hagel nomination. Hagel’s gaffe found insulting by the LGBT community, in my view, should not disqualify him. He’s a budget hawk at a time when the Pentagon budget needs to shrink and history will treat him well for opposing the invasion of Iraq. Hagel is just the kind of Republican Obama needs.

Treasury speculation centers on current White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew, who enjoys the president’s confidence – a not unimportant fact – but really gets Obama nothing politically.

Two of the biggest challenges the president faces in a second term involve putting the nation’s fiscal house in better shape and facing down a Congress, including Republicans and Democrats, who will not want to really take on military spending as a key element in addressing the first issue.

Obama could really use hard-headed, pragmatic Republicans in the key Defense and Treasury spots to serve as the point of the spear in the coming budget battles. It’s time for the buttoned down White House to think outside the typical Beltway Box.

How about retiring GOP Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine at Treasury? She’s a veteran of the Finance Committee and a senior member of the Taxation subcommittee. She’s smart, moderate and candid and its past time a woman ran Treasury.

Or, really unset the apple cart and nominate former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson as Treasury Secretary. The press would love it, Republicans would have to go along, Democrats would be skeptical and the American public – not to mention Wall Street – would see in such a pick that Obama is serious about a fiscal house cleaning. Simpson is 81 and may only want to serve for more than a year or 18 months, but that about the time available in a second term for Obama to get something big done. The outspoken Simpson would help him.

John Kennedy needed the same kind of Treasury help in 1961 and turned to a Republican Wall Street insider C. Douglas Dillon. Harry Truman was smart enough to bring Herbert Hoover back to the White House to advise him on post-World War II relief and eventually government re-organization. That unlikely collaboration resulted in a deep and genuine friendship. The great Lincoln went outside his party to put Andrew Johnson on his second term ticket in the interest of national – or at least northern – unity.

As Obama thinks about a 2013 cabinet, he would be well advised to think of political people – Republicans and Democrats – who are “of politics” but not “in politics.” People like former Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith fit that bill or former Utah Governors Mike Leavitt and Jon Huntsman. Leavitt was a Mitt Romney partisan and is a health care expert who would have immediate credibility on issues like Medicare spending and reform. Huntsman has already served as Obama’s ambassador to China and it’s clear that his moderate views would have made him a better GOP candidate last year than Romney. Having him inside the Obama tent again in some significant role would be a master stroke.

Or, how about a truly gutsy and game changing pick – former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush? Give the smartest of the Bush clan the Pentagon job with a mandate to right-size the American military for the threats of the 21st Century. I can hear the chuckling. Why would Bush, a future GOP presidential candidate, do that? He probably wouldn’t, which makes the offer even more intriguing. Let him say no to the president. No harm and much benefit in asking.

In a second term, Obama will find that his window to accomplish anything important will close very, very quickly. He can buy himself more time, more public good will and both intrigue and frustrate his opponents in both parties by wrapping a genuine cloak of bipartisanship around his shoulders.

By inviting some very high profile Republicans to the Cabinet table Obama is sure to set off Democratic grumbling. Who cares. Republicans will fume because they will know deep down that Obama has outfoxed them again. Let them vote against a couple of GOP nominees. The public, hungering for bipartisan acts, would love it and the benefits will last for the rest of the president’s term.

A couple of high profile, gutsy, unexpected Cabinet appointees would be a great way for Barack Obama to start the New Year.