I have had this thought in the back of my head for a while now and it’s now formed into something that I want to articulate into something here.
Another comparison that has been made constantly is that Obama has followed Lincoln’s precedent and created a cabinet that is a “Team of Rivals.” Also the title of a great book by Doris Kearns Goodwin, the reference is to how Lincoln’s cabinet included many of his biggest rivals in the Republican party, including William Seward, the favorite going into the convention, as Secretary of State and Salmon Chase, who had an undying and almost heartless pursuit of the presidency even for the 1864 election, as Secretary of the Treasury.
However, if you take even a slight look at things, Obama’s cabinet isn’t a team of rivals. You can’t even create a team of rivals today. Seward and Chase were major players to be nominated for the Republican ticket. The process was of course extremely different than today – there isn’t a big campaigning process that lasts for a year and covers the entire country. But at the convention, via the means utilized at the time, they were really #1 and #2, with Lincoln eventually taking advantage of the split to get the nomination. They were true rivals.
Who played those roles for Obama? Well, he had a major rival, sure – Hillary Clinton. No question there, and she is going to be the Secretary of State, as was Seward. But can you really call Joe Biden or Bill Richardson, both of whom put their names in the ring for the 2008 nomination but dropped out very, very early, “rivals?” Is he really building a cabinet in a way that is different than past presidents – getting the right people around with the right skills? (The Panetta nomination is still about Obama picking someone with the skills that he feels are right for the CIA, whether everyone else agrees or not).
One thing that is definitely similar but the timing is way off – Lincoln helped create the Republican party in the several years before 1860, and his cabinet helped solidify its leadership. Seward hadn’t even moved from the Whig to Republican party until relatively late in the game.
In a sense, Obama’s campaign was the culmination of the rebuilding of the Democratic party. At the least, after Gore lost in 2000, things were pretty much in disarray.