Reducing ideological divisions and unifying Americans to achieve important common goals has been a focus of Barack Obama since even before he announced his presidency. It is one of the key reasons his campaign had strong appeal to the emerging civic Millennial Generation, which he carried by a margin of more than 2:1. When CBS’s Steve Croft asked the then-candidate in a pre-election interview what qualified him, a junior senator with limited governmental experience, to be president of the United States, Obama led off his reply by citing his desire and ability to bridge differences and bring people together.
Through Your Actions
One way a civic era president-elect can demonstrate the importance he places on the need for national unity is to name members of the opposition party to his cabinet. The actions of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, the only two other Presidents to preside over transitions to civic eras, demonstrate how this game should be played.
For all the media commentary on Lincoln's first cabinet, deemed a "Team of Rivals" by Doris Kearns Goodwin, it should be noted that it contained no one from the discredited Democratic Party, even though it did have representatives that spanned the breadth of opinion within the relatively new GOP. However, Lincoln did add a Democrat, Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, to his cabinet less than a year after taking office. Stanton, a strongly pro-Union Northern Democrat, had opposed Lincoln's election and had served as Attorney General in the final months of the Buchanan administration. However, Lincoln’s selection of pro-Union Democrat, Andrew Johnson, as his vice-presidential running mate in his 1864 re-election campaign demonstrates that it’s sometimes possible to take even a good idea too far. FDR appointed two Republicans to his initial cabinet–industrialist William H. Woodin, who as Treasury Secretary helped FDR implement his economic and fiscal program at the outset of the New Deal, and Harold L. Ickes, who served as Interior Secretary throughout the entirety of the Roosevelt administration. Both Woodin and Ickes were progressives who had supported FDR in the 1932 election. While neither was a member of the Republican Old Guard, together they demonstrated Roosevelt's willingness to reach beyond his own party to enlist what today would be called "moderate Republicans" in a unified effort to overcome major national problems.
Reflecting America's changing demographics and social mores, Barack Obama has chosen the most diverse cabinet and set of top advisors of any president in U.S. history. Two members of Obama's larger number of appointees -- Robert Gates and Ray Lahood -- are not Democrats, the same number for which FDR found room. This represents a greater number of members of the a different or opposing party than were present in the Cabinets of any of Obama’s idealist era predecessors.
President-elect Obama’s attempt to include a wide range of political opinion and backgrounds in his Cabinet and White House team has generated criticism from the most ideological members of his party, just as FDR and Lincoln faced such criticism from the extreme partisans of their day. Obama's appointment of many "centrist" cabinet-level officers who previously served in Congress, the Clinton Administration, or as governors suggests to his critics that he is abandoning his pledge to bring about significant change in economic, foreign, and social policy. But as political scientist Ross Baker points out, "In uncertain times, Americans find it much more comforting that the people who are going to be advising the president are steeped in experience. A Cabinet of outsiders would have been very disquieting." And civic realignments like the present one have come at the most uncertain and stressful times in America's history.
Through Your Words
Lincoln and FDR are also renowned for their ability to use their words to rally Americans to a common cause. Both did so at the very outset of their terms. Both of these great civic presidents’ first inaugural addresses addressed the fears of a nation in crisis with rhetoric that has continued to ring through the ages.
Lincoln, in another last-ditch effort to forestall secession, told the South that neither he nor the Republican Party would make any attempt to undo slavery in states where it already existed. But he also reminded the South that, while only its actions could ultimately provoke civil war, his "solemn oath to preserve, protect, and defend" the Constitution would require him to prosecute that war if it came.
Lincoln concluded his address with an appeal to the secessionists to rejoin the Union:
We are not enemies, but friends…Though passion may have strained, it must not break, our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
Roosevelt used his inaugural speech to rally the country to the task ahead by telling it, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." He reminded his listeners that at previous dark moments in our national history vigorous leadership joined with a supportive public to win ultimate victory in the nation's trials. Perhaps most important, FDR gave clear recognition that the United States and its people had moved from what we have called an "idealist" era of unrestrained individualism to a "civic" era of unity and common purpose:
If I read the temper of our people correctly, we now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other; that we can not merely take but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective.
Even before President-elect Obama had a chance to utter similarly comforting and inspiring rhetoric, his inaugural plans came under fire for inviting Pastor Rick Warren, a fundamentalist minister and activist in the passage of California's Proposition 8 outlawing gay marriage, to give the invocation at his inauguration. But the selection of Warren should not have been surprising to careful observers. In his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, Obama signaled his desire to find common ground on divisive social issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and gun control.
By bookending his inaugural with a benediction from Joseph Lowrey, a minister who favors legalizing gay marriage among other liberal causes, Obama has signaled his determination to put an end to the debates over social issues from an idealist era that is ending and enlist all those willing to join his cause to rebuild America’s civic institutions.
For in the end, it is the American people that Barack Obama must rally to his side. It is they who will ultimately decide the effectiveness of his transition as a springboard to a civic era Administration. So far their judgment is overwhelmingly positive. A late December 2008 CNN national survey describes "a love affair between Barack Obama and the American people." That survey indicated that more than eight in 10 Americans (82%) approved of the way Obama was handling his transition, a figure that was up by three percentage points since the beginning of the month. Obama's approval is well above that of either Bill Clinton (67%) or George W. Bush (65%) at that point in their transitions.
More specifically, the poll suggests that the public approves of Obama's Cabinet nominees, with 56 percent saying his appointments have been outstanding or above average. That number is 18 percentage points higher than that given to Bush's appointments and 26 points above that of Clinton's nominees. To quote CNN polling director Keating Holland: "Barack Obama is having a better honeymoon with the American public than any incoming president in the past three decades. He's putting up better numbers, usually by double digits, than Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, or either George Bush on every item traditionally measured in transition polls."
Of course, the final judgment of the Obama presidency by the American people and history will be based on his performance in office starting on January 20. Still, these polling results clearly suggest that Barack Obama has internalized and put into operation the historical transition lessons provided by Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, the presidents who led America's two previous civic realignments. If his inaugural address comes close to matching their first inaugural speeches, President-elect Obama will begin one of the most important administrations in the nation’s history with an enormous reservoir of political and public support that will serve him well in the crucial early days of his Administration.