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Obama's White House -- the diversity question

January 10, 2013|By Carla Hall
  • President Obama with, from left, outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and former U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel, nominated to replace Panetta, and John Brennan, nominated to be CIA director, with acting CIA Director Michael Morell.
President Obama with, from left, outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta… (Getty Images )

In the wake of President Obama’s reelection, there was much clucking about the demise of the political power of white men and the inability of Mitt Romney -- the quintessential Republican white man -- to capture the support and votes of women and minorities and other Americans increasingly disenchanted with the conservative party’s message.

Yet, if you looked at the Dec. 29 photo of Obama meeting with senior advisors in the Oval Office, which made the front of the New York Times on Wednesday, you would rest assured that white men are still very much in power -- in the first black president’s White House, as it turns out.  In the photo, 10 of his 11 advisors standing before him are men, and eight of them are white.  The one woman, who is black, in the photo is Valerie Jarrett, which you only know because it says so in the caption of the photo. All you can see is a sliver of her leg.

On Wednesday, the White House, to its credit, had Press Secretary Jay Carney respond to questions about the photo by naming the women in the Cabinet and other high positions and noting that the White House staff is 50% women. Carney said that “that photograph is not reflective of the diversity within the White House staff or within the broader administration.” (I say “to its credit” only because imagine if White House spokespeople had responded with “What? What’s the problem?”) Interestingly, the White House website photo of the day on Wednesday showed Obama meeting in the Oval Office surrounded by five male aides and three female aides, which this time included a very visible Valerie Jarrett.

So does this matter? In 2013? Of course it does, but it’s complicated.

Everyone would agree that the president is entitled to choose whomever he believes has the talent, loyalty and drive to fulfill the demanding posts around him. And undoubtedly he has a nearly endless roster to pick from. As outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has noted, you don’t turn down the president.

Second, precisely because Obama is the first minority president to govern a country where white people still make up the majority, he has had to appear scrupulously nonracial in his choices. If John McCain had won in 2008 or Romney last year and both set out to populate their staffs largely with white people, there would be some grumbling but no one would truly question it. If Obama’s administration had turned out to be 70% black -- or 70% women even -- he would have been assailed for putting gender or race ahead of experience, the implication being that there couldn’t possibly be that many women or blacks qualified for those kinds of jobs.

Yet, the U.S. is increasingly diverse, and it seems that the administration of a man who is famously the offspring of an interracial couple should and could -- without employing tokenism, without sacrificing competence -- reflect that diversity. Besides, Obama himself says he is committed to diversity. Carney reiterated that at Wednesday’s briefing.   

And the president hasn’t done a bad job at it. His two Supreme Court nominations have been women. His first secretary of State is a woman, his attorney general a black man, his Homeland Security secretary a woman.

Still, five of his 15 Cabinet members are women, and two are leaving -- Clinton and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis. Obama’s pick to replace Clinton, of course, is Sen. John Kerry.  And the president’s recent spate of high-level appointments have all been men -- and white ones at that.  Additionally, the high-profile position of White House press secretary has been occupied by two men, both white, since Obama became president.

It’s just disappointing, even disturbing, that Obama can’t find more women, more black people, more Latinos he feels comfortable with and confident in for these positions. This is his second term. He made it -- with the overwhelming support of blacks, women and Latinos -- and after a tumultuous, combative first term.

I’m not suggesting he “owes” his supporters anything other than an effective and hardworking White House. But at this point in his tenure, he should be as aggressive and individualistic as he pleases in appointing whomever he wants for these jobs, which makes me think he truly does prefer, say, the graceless Chuck Hagel for Defense secretary over the widely esteemed Michele Flournoy. And that’s even more depressing.

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