Barack Obama’s cult of personality was evident from his campaign’s earliest days. Even Democratic dogmatist Paul Krugman could see it:
I won’t try for fake evenhandedness here: most of the venom I see is coming from supporters of Mr. Obama, who want their hero or nobody. I’m not the first to point out that the Obama campaign seems dangerously close to becoming a cult of personality.
He wasn’t the first, nor was he the last. If anything, the hero-worship became more pronounced when President Obama entered the White House. Rather than fight it, Obama embraced it.
“I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director,” Obama was famously quoted as saying by Patrick Gaspard, Obama’s first White House political director.”
Such self-confidence led him to surround himself with people who would ratify his vision rather than challenge, or worse, change, his ideas. Jennifer Rubin at the The Washington Post wrote of Obama’s second term cabinet selections:
It is not merely that President Obama has put up confrontational nominees. He is also replacing senior people with standing and reputations derived independent of his administration (e.g., Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, Tim Geithner) with confidants who are like-minded, disinclined to question the president or rebut his (often erroneous) thinking. It is the reign of the yes-men (a whole lot less women, as many have pointed out), dedicated to partisan sprawls. Like the president, they are convinced that leftist policy is not only sound but morally superior.
And left-leaning Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank imagined Obama’s decision making this way:
Obama: I’m going to issue an executive order deporting Republican members of Congress.
[Adviser Valerie] Jarrett: Are you sure that’s a good idea?
[Chief of Staff Denis] McDonough: Should we check with the counsel’s office?
Obama: Nope, I’ve thought it through and this is what we’re doing.
Jarrett: Brilliant idea, sir.
McDonough: I’ll get the paperwork together.
To be fair, filling an inner circle with doctrinaire liberals who nod as he lectures is assuredly the president’s prerogative, but it also makes for a weak administration. A strong, confident leader should be desirous of surrounding himself with the smartest, most talented people possible, not just a team of personal and ideological loyalists.
Fortunately, Donald Trump is not constructing a similar echo chamber. In some ways it would be understandable if he did. After all, he turned out to truly be a better political director than his political director. His intuitive sense for policy, strategy and messaging ran counter to all the collective wisdom of the so-called political establishment and largely turned everything we thought we knew about politics on its head.
Nevertheless, Trump has always been comfortable surrounding himself with dissenting voices, in no small part because he seems personally curious about finding out which side of the argument wins. Politico’s Zachary Karabell describes his management style as “like an episode of ‘Game of Thrones’” in that he pits various ideas and personalities against each other to see which comes out on top. Karabell writes:
The result looks to be an economic “Team of Rivals”— a mishmash of aides with vastly different philosophies and backgrounds, with seemingly little in common other than their shared desire to serve in his administration. The idea, popularized by Doris Kearns Goodwin a decade ago in her account of Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet, has a certain logic: A strong, great president needs and cultivates a myriad of views championed by strong individuals who do not shy from asserting their convictions in the face of equally strong disagreement from others. In retrospect, that worked with Lincoln and his ornery set of advisers. It worked because Lincoln neither lack for self-confidence nor needed to be the only voice in the room.
Can Trump come close to approaching Lincoln’s leadership? We’re a long way from knowing. But if the construction of his cabinet is any indication, he’s at least off to a better start than Obama’s second term band of sycophants.