Will the Lack of Diversity in Obama's New Cabinet Affect His Term?
Few female faces, or those of color, appear among president's picks
Late last month, when a photo (right) of President Barack Obama sitting in the Oval Office addressing his top advisers surfaced, it was hard to ignore their, well, commonalities. There, facing POTUS, stood 10 men — nine of them white. And peeking out from behind one of them was a black pant leg belonging to the only woman (and black woman) in the room, an almost entirely obscured Valerie Jarrett, the president's senior adviser.
A week later, Obama publicly announced his nominees for new cabinet members: counterterrorism and homeland security adviser John Brennan to replace disgraced Gen. David Petraeus as CIA director; former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) to replace Leon Panetta who was stepping down as Secretary of Defense; and Jack Lew—the fourth consecutive white male nominee—to replace Timothy Geithner as Treasury Secretary. (The president had earlier handpicked Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) to replace Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State.)
Additionally, both Lisa Jackson, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator and first African American woman to hold that title, and Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, a Latina, announced they'd be resigning from their positions.
So, the implications of the cabinet's future were evident, and critics weren't quiet about it.
New York University professor Paul Light said the cabinet would "possibly be even less diverse than George W. Bush's." CNN's Soledad O'Brien bet $100 that the 50 most senior people in the White House would not mirror the diversity of America. NBC's Andrea Mitchell said the women of the White House were "not happy." And Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) said of the whole situation, "It's embarrassing as hell."
Though Obama has declared that he is not yet finished completing his cabinet—saying in a Jan. 14 press conference, "I would just suggest that everybody kind of wait until they've seen all of my appointments before they rush to judgment"—Robert Watson, professor of American Studies at Lynn University (and a self-proclaimed "big advocate for diversity in the cabinet"), isn't so sure the attacks are premature, even if a bit exaggerated.
"I believe the press is right to raise the question," said Watson. "Even though there was a lot of diversity in the cabinet during the first term, many folks would rightly like to see as much in the second. However, I do believe the concern is overblown. Hagel is a Republican, Lew is Jewish—so only Kerry brings no diversity to the cabinet—and roughly 43 percent of [Obama's] total appointments have been women."
The New York Times reported the same statistic, noting it's "about the same proportion as in the Clinton administration, but up from the roughly one-third appointed by George W. Bush."
As examples of the diversity of the cabinet in Obama's first term, Watson points to his appointments of Hillary Clinton, Solis and Jarrett, as well as Department of Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano, and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius. He also brings to attention Attorney General Eric Holder, an African American (who will stay on for an "unspecified time" in Obama's second term) and reminds critics that, "beyond the cabinet," both former campaign adviser David Axelrod and former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel are Jewish.
Still, though Obama's priorities no longer lie in targeting determined demographics for votes, representatives of certain demographics may feel slighted when they see his cabinet picks. New York Times writer Maureen Dowd wrote, "It’s passing strange that Obama, carried to a second term by women, blacks and Latinos, chooses to give away the plummiest cabinet and White House jobs to white dudes."
Rebecca Hannagan, professor of political science at Northern Illinois University, also says that underrepresentation of these groups in the cabinet will influence Obama's last term in office.
"There is plenty of research to suggest that a more diverse decision-making group makes different, if not better, decisions," said Hannagan. "A study found that groups that make more 'collectively intelligent' decisions are those with more women because when a group is comprised of all men, they tend not to listen to each other or suggest alternative solutions to solve problems. There tends to be more convergence, and that is not necessarily what a president needs from his closest advisers."
"Although the men in Obama's cabinet may appear to be homogeneous, it is extremely possible that they bring completely different mental models to governing and thus would likely be able to achieve the same level of discussion and innovation that other diverse groups can achieve," he said.
So, hey, maybe not everyone's picking on the president. And if they are, the president doesn't find it to be warranted. In that same press conference where he said he hadn't completed his cabinet choices, he also reminded viewers that, during his first four years, it was women who had the most influence on his foreign policy, health care and domestic initiatives. He added, "My two appointments to the Supreme Court were women. And 50 percent of my White House staff were women."
Democratic political commentator Roy Paul is (one of the few) cutting POTUS some slack.
"The president takes an oath to do his job to the best of his ability," Paul said. "To do that he has to appoint the people he feels will help him the most in fulfilling that oath. Those people should never be selected because of their gender, race, religion or sexual orientation." (As Breitbart points out, that's called discrimination, folks.)
How soon we forget that change happened where it counted. Or, as Watson so eloquently put it, "Any conversation on this topic must include the obvious mention that Obama is African American, so we finally have diversity in the nation’s highest office."
Does the president need to choose more women, blacks and other people of color to join his cabinet? Tell us in the Comments!