Obama Reaches Out for McCain’s Counsel
Published: January 18, 2009
WASHINGTON — Not long after Senator John McCain returned last month from an official trip to Iraq and Pakistan, he received a phone call from President-elect Barack Obama.
As contenders for the presidency, the two had hammered each other for much of 2008 over their conflicting approaches to foreign policy, especially in Iraq. (He’d lose a war! He’d stay a hundred years!) Now, however, Mr. Obama said he wanted Mr. McCain’s advice, people in each camp briefed on the conversation said. What did he see on the trip? What did he learn?
It was just one step in a post-election courtship that historians say has few modern parallels, beginning with a private meeting in Mr. Obama’s transition office in Chicago just two weeks after the vote. On Monday night, Mr. McCain will be the guest of honor at a black-tie dinner celebrating Mr. Obama’s inauguration.
Over the last three months, Mr. Obama has quietly consulted Mr. McCain about many of the new administration’s potential nominees to top national security jobs and about other issues — in one case relaying back a contender’s answers to questions Mr. McCain had suggested.
Mr. McCain, meanwhile, has told colleagues “that many of these appointments he would have made himself,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and a close McCain friend.
Fred I. Greenstein, emeritus professor of politics at Princeton, said: “I don’t think there is a precedent for this. Sometimes there is bad blood, sometimes there is so-so blood, but rarely is there good blood.”
Professor Greenstein said Mr. Obama’s impulse to win over even ideological opposites appeared to date at least to his friendships with conservatives on The Harvard Law Review when he was president.
For Mr. Obama, cooperation with his defeated opponent could also provide a useful ally in the Senate, where Mr. McCain has parlayed his national popularity and go-his-own-way reputation into a role as a pivotal deal maker over the last eight years. But on the subject of Iraq, in particular, their collaboration could also raise questions among Mr. Obama’s liberal supporters, many of whom demonized Mr. McCain as a dangerous warmonger because of his staunch opposition to a pullout.
Mr. Obama arrived for their Chicago meeting on Nov. 16 with several well-researched proposals to collaborate on involving some of Mr. McCain’s favorite causes, including a commission to cut “corporate welfare,” curbing waste in military procurement and an overhaul of immigration rules.
“The corporate welfare commission and military acquisition reform are two things the president-elect wants to do very soon,” Rahm Emanuel, Mr. Obama’s chief of staff and a participant in the meeting, said in an interview. The new administration is already preparing to introduce legislation echoing a previous McCain bill on the commission idea, Mr. Emanuel said, adding, “We have been very respectful and solicitous of his ideas.”
Mr. Emanuel said he did not remember any discussion of Iraq. “Barack has been clear that he is going to stick to his responsible reduction in forces, and he hasn’t changed from that,” he said.
But Mr. Graham, who accompanied Mr. McCain to the meeting, said Mr. Obama took a notably different tone toward Iraq than he had during the campaign, emphasizing the common ground in their views.
“He said that he understands that we had differences but he wanted to let us know that he also understands that we have got to be responsible in how we leave Iraq,” Mr. Graham recalled. “What the Obama-Biden administration has talked about is not losing the gains we have achieved. ”
He added, “Obama does not want to be the guy who lost Iraq when it is close to being won.”
Mr. Emanuel, whose only previous contact with Mr. Graham was negotiating the terms of the presidential debates, began calling him more than once a week to follow up. “Constantly,” Mr. Emanuel said. “There has been a running dialogue.”
Mr. Graham, in turn, called his counterpart “a pleasure to do business with.”
Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., a friend since Mr. McCain was the Navy’s liaison to the Senate three decades ago, has also played intermediary. He called Mr. McCain to ask him to appear at the inaugural dinner, and he invited Mr. Graham on another recent trip to Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I know the vice president-elect is very concerned about the end game in Iraq,” Mr. Graham said.
Some Senate Democrats have complained that Mr. Obama failed to seek their contributions about certain appointments — notably Leon E. Panetta as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. But the Obama transition team has consistently sought advice and feedback from Mr. McCain, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, on national security appointments, Mr. Emanuel and Mr. Graham both said.
Mr. Graham said Mr. McCain had enthusiastically supported those appointments: Gen. James L. Jones (an old McCain friend) as national security adviser; Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, the retired Army chief of staff, as secretary of veterans affairs; Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state; and most of all, retaining Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates.
“Picking Gates is a good statement that they are not going to pull out of Iraq in a way that undercuts the gains achieved,” Mr. Graham said.
And when Mr. McCain raised “concerns” about the potential choice of Adm. Dennis C. Blair as director of national intelligence, Mr. Emanuel said, Mr. Obama’s advisers asked the admiral to provide answers to Mr. McCain’s questions to win his support. (Neither side would disclose the details of Mr. McCain’s concerns, but Admiral Blair has faced past questions about his relations with the military dictators of Indonesia when he was in the Navy, and a possible conflict of interest when he later worked with a nonprofit group evaluating weapons systems.)
“We gave McCain time to talk through it, made sure he was briefed,” Mr. Emanuel said.
Mr. Obama’s cultivation of Mr. McCain is a stark contrast with the practices of past presidents. After the 2004 election, President Bush did not talk to his defeated opponent, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, until Mr. Kerry visited the White House in March 2005 as part of a large group to celebrate the Red Sox victory in the World Series. (“I like to see Senator Kerry,” Mr. Bush said, “except when we’re fixing to debate.”) And after Mr. Bush defeated Mr. McCain for the Republican nomination in 2000, the two had only perfunctory contact and often-adversarial relations for nearly two years.
Shortly before his second inauguration, former President Bill Clinton awarded his defeated opponent, Bob Dole, the Medal of Freedom. But it was an entirely ceremonial event. (Mr. Dole joked that had hoped to be at the White House picking up “the front door key” instead.)
A spokeswoman for Mr. McCain did not respond to several messages. But Mr. Graham said he and Mr. McCain were convinced that Mr. Obama was genuinely interested in working together with them on both domestic priorities and foreign policy.
“Not only is it good politics,” Mr. Graham said, “it gives you an insight into who ur dealing with.