Debate about Obama campaign diversity is nothing new

ANALYSIS - The debate about the level of diversity in the Obama campaign, spurred by recent articles in Politico and BuzzFeed, is familiar: it happens every four years...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

The debate about the level of diversity in the Obama campaign, spurred by recent articles in Politico and BuzzFeed, is familiar: it happens every four years.

Because Democrats are heavily reliant on the votes of minorities, particularly African-Americans, questions abound nearly every election cycle about the level of diversity on the campaign staff, particularly at top levels. Bill Clinton and John Kerry faced complaints, as did Obama four years ago. The highest levels of most presidential campaigns, like many organizations in America, are often dominated by white men.

Some Democrats have argued for years that President Obama, as the first black president, should place even more of a premium on diversity. In some ways, he has: Eric Holder is the first black attorney general, Lisa Jackson the first black EPA administrator. The administration’s agencies are littered with blacks in key posts.

At the same time, the pictures released by the White House of Obama in meetings in the Oval Office are usually dominated by white faces. And a photo posted by BuzzFeed earlier this month showed few minorities on the campaign staff.

Obama’s campaign has acknowledged it is trying to increase diversity, even as aides noted that more than a third of the campaign’s staff is non-white.

Measuring diversity and its impact is a very complicated issue. Generally, two different rationales are given for diversity: first, in a country in which about 28 percent of people are non-white, organizations should reflect that, and second, diversity in decision-making ensures policies that take minorities into account.

On the second score, critics like Tavis Smiley aside, it’s hard to argue President Obama’s policies don’t reflect a desire to help diverse populations. Health care reform and the stimulus, perhaps the biggest two initiatives of Obama’s tenure, disproportionately benefit blacks, who are more likely not to have health insurance and to be working in government jobs the stimulus helped fund.

Obama has not announced specific policy initiatives to target minority groups, as some black leaders have urged, but that is a nod to the complicated political dynamics of doing so. A president pushing universal health care is targeting a problem that powerfully affects blacks and Latinos, even if he doesn’t say it.

But the diversity in pure numbers of staff and appearances does matter as well. African-American officials in Washington outside of Obama’s inner circle have long privately complained that the people he relies on to make key decisions only includes one black person: longtime adviser Valerie Jarrett.

“At the beginning of the administration, they could have cherry-picked the best from members’ offices. Now, facing reelection and with nine months left, it’s a hard sell to convince folks to make a jump,” one source told Politico. “I hope the president’s team was listening when he said that if he had a son, he’d look like Trayvon Martin and that they make it a reality, not a priority, to have more senior staff [not just one or two people] around the president who look like Trayvon Martin. Right now, it is nonexistent, and you rarely see more than one African-American, male or female, anywhere around or advising the president unless he is at an African-American gathering of some kind.”

White House officials dispute this kind of argument. Holder, for example, was very involved in the administration’s policy on the Martin case, even if he has not been shown in pictures talking about it to the president. Michelle Obama no doubt plays a role in the president’s decision-making. And less famous advisers, such as Patrick Gaspard, the executive director of the Democratic National Committee, are playing major roles in the campaign.

Ultimately, this is a bit hard to sort out. Only President Obama knows which advisers truly shape his decision-making on policy. And it’s not exactly clear if this matters. Latinos and blacks did not like the policy decisions of the Bush administration, even as Condi Rice and Alberto Gonzales had very close relationships with the president.

Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr