Obama’s Cabinet of Cronies
Much has been written so far about the choices that President Barack Obama made for his second term cabinet. His new appointees—Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) as secretary of state, White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew to Treasury, and former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) as secretary of defense—are people who have played a key role in Obama’s election or first term administration and are close friends of the president.
This is a sharp contrast to the genesis of his first term, when Obama likened his Cabinet appointees, and welcomed comparisons, to those of Abraham Lincoln, who chose several political opponents and opposite numbers—hence the term “team of rivals,” from the eponymous title of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s prize-winning book, which gave rise to the current hit movie “Lincoln.”
So far, President Obama’s Cabinet in 2013 is shaping up most like that of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933—namely, a “cabinet of cronies.” As president-elect, FDR picked a cabinet exclusively composed of people who were closes associates from New York or politicians who had helped him win his fight for the Democratic nomination or the general election in 1932.
Roosevelt defeated nine opponents for the Democratic nomination on the fourth ballot at the Democratic convention in ’32. With the exception of Roosevelt’s selection of John Nance Garner as his vice presidential running mate to break the convention deadlock, none of the other Democratic hopefuls would hold any position in his administration.
“Brilliance it lacks completely”
Much as Sen. Kerry came out for Obama over Hillary Clinton at a critical point in the 2008 nomination battle and played Mitt Romney in mock debates with the president last year, Sen. Cordell Hull (D-Tenn.) came out early for New York Gov. Roosevelt for the Democratic nomination and was a player in his winning Southern states at the convention. Hull became secretary of state, but, as the late Steve Neal wrote in his book “Happy Days Are Here Again,” he was “not the major architect of foreign policy; Roosevelt kept that role for himself.”
Other political allies awarded with Roosevelt Cabinet posts included Connecticut’s Democratic National Committeeman Homer Cummings, who had lined up New England delegates for FDR, as attorney general; Utah Gov. George Dern, who helped deliver the Rocky Mountain region’s delegates to Roosevelt at the convention and wanted to be his running mate, as Secretary of War; Daniel Roper of South Carolina, a national campaign strategist coordinating the South for Roosevelt, as Secretary of Commerce; and New York State Democratic Chairman James Farley, FDR’s national campaign manager, as postmaster general — then a Cabinet position.
Industrialist William H. Woodin, a major contributor to the Roosevelt campaign, served for nine months as Secretary of the Treasury until poor health forced him to resign in December of 1933. The president then turned to his close friend and next-door neighbor in Hyde Park, N.Y., economist Henry Morgenthau, for Treasury.
Like Obama did in underscoring that Republican Hagel is being tapped by the Democratic president, Roosevelt proudly noted that he was tapping Republicans Harold Ickes of Illinois and Henry Wallace of Iowa to be Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture, respectively. Like Hagel, Ickes and Wallace were major irritants to most of their fellow Republicans. Both were from the liberal wing of the party and both were “Republicans for Roosevelt” in 1932.
In contrast to Obama in his Cabinet-making at this point, FDR had no gender gap. In fact, he started gender consideration in Cabinet appointments by naming Frances Perkins, his commissioner of industrial relations while governor of New York, as Secretary of Labor and the first woman Cabinet member. Roosevelt also considered Florida Rep. Ruth Bryan Owen, daughter of three-time Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan, for the job but instead named the daughter of the “Great Commoner” as ambassador to Denmark—the first woman to be a U.S. ambassador anywhere.
Having a “cabinet of cronies” did not really affect whether Roosevelt’s “New Deal” would get through Congress. In 1933, Democrats held overwhelming majorities in both the House and Senate and would do anything the new president wanted. President Obama, of course, faces a very different situation on Capitol Hill.
“Generally speaking, it is an average group of presidential advisers,” Arthur Krock wrote in the New York Times in 1933, assessing the new president’s team, “Its composite trait seems to be diligence. Brilliance it lacks completely.”
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