The New York Times recently ran an article about the president’s second term cabinet appointments leaning male and white, alongside a picture of President Obama’s fiscal cliff team, also (mostly) white and male. Couple that with President Obama’s first four cabinet replacements for his second term being white men, and it has become a theme.
Now the beltway narrative is that the nation’s first black president isn’t filling out senior staff and cabinet positions with people of color and women, a trend that is disappointing to the diverse coalition of interests and voters that elected Obama to office.
The New York Times photo is somewhat misleading, however.
First, Valerie Jarrett is in the picture, but only her leg is visible. And while it’s true that the first four high profile cabinet posts have gone to white men, there are a number of high profile posts in the White House that are filled by women. Forty-three percent of President Obama’s appointees have been women, which the Times reported is approximately the same rate as the Clinton administration.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney defended the administration’s diversity in top staff positions saying that, “the president believes that diversity is important because having diversity increases the excellence of the pool of advisers around you, pool of the staff that you have here… And I think it will be true in the second term.”
There is no doubt that the New York Times picture coupled with the announcement of four white men in row for cabinet posts is bad optics, but it might also be true that the same beltway media calling out the president for a surrounding himself with a majority of white men, lacks self-awareness to see that they too are a room full of white men.
The point being that the entirety of the beltway apparatus, from the White House down to the press corps who cover the administration, lack diversity.
There is also a tendency for the white men in the administration in these high profile posts to get more face time in the press, making them much more visible, and thus more closely associated with the president than other members of senior staff. It’s likely most Americans would be able to identify a picture of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner over a picture of Nancy-Ann DeParle, the Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy.
This is not a defense of the administration. The key here is that progressives want a diverse group of folks in the White House to mirror the diversity of the president’s coalition. A more diverse group of advisors on key policy issues tends to result in better policy outcomes for women and people of color.
For example, Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett was a key voice inside the White House to make sure that President Obama held firm on the contraception mandate, while Attorney General Eric Holder ensured that minority voters were able to exercise their right to vote this November in the face of intense voter suppression targeting communities of color. The truth is that the quest to remake the administration in America’s melting pot image is an ongoing process and pushing the administration to select from a more diverse pool of applicants is part of that process.
With the news, late Wednesday that Labor secretary Hilda Solis is leaving the administration, vacating another cabinet position held by a Latina woman, the president will be under scrutiny to fill that post the best qualified person of color, a woman, or both.
It might also be true that had the president selected U.N. ambassador Susan Rice to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the beltway wouldn’t have latched on to this “room full of white men” narrative at all.
In the end, President Obama’s second term may allow for two appointments to the Supreme Court, where he already appointed two women and the country’s first Latina Justice, Sonia Sotomayor. And if the president uses these Supreme Court appointments to fill out the Court with two more women, the beltway and history will view Obama’s tenure and record on diversity through a much different lens than they have this week.
Follow Zerlina Maxwell at @ZerlinaMaxwell