After being criticized for the lack of diversity among his early Cabinet picks for his second term, President Barack Obama is remaking his new team in the image of his first.
Obama’s selection yesterday of Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx to be his next transportation secretary and the possible nomination this week of Chicago businesswoman Penny Pritzker as commerce secretary would add a rising young black politician from the South and a woman to his 23 cabinet-level advisers.
Earlier this month, the Senate confirmed Sylvia Mathews Burwell as the Office of Management and Budget director and Sally Jewell as Interior Secretary. Obama also has named Gina McCarthy to direct the Environmental Protection Agency.
While those choices haven’t quelled all of Obama’s critics, they provide gender and racial diversity in top administration posts equal to his first term.
“It’s not who, it’s to what outcome,” said Victoria Budson, executive director of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard University. “All of them have to understand it and guide policy toward outcomes to close gaps for women and girls.”
Obama was re-elected by winning a majority of votes from women, Hispanics and blacks, and he’s been under pressure from some advocacy groups to reflect the diversity of his political coalition in his Cabinet. After drawing criticism when the three top Cabinet posts went to men, Obama and his aides have asked for patience.
“What you will see is a Cabinet that reflects the diversity of the country and reflects the quality of people who are willing to serve their country in these important positions,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said yesterday.
The president has urged critics not to judge the composition of his cabinet until he was done.
“I would just suggest that everybody kind of wait until they’ve seen all my appointments before they rush to judgment,” Obama said at a Jan. 14 news conference.
If the current lineup of Cabinet officers holds, women will make up 35 percent of the positions. While that exceeds the level in former President George W. Bush’s administration -- 24 percent -- it falls short of the 41 percent in former President Bill Clinton’s Cabinet during his second term, according to data collected by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
The balance so far hasn’t satisfied all of Obama’s supporters. The three most prominent Cabinet positions now are held by men after Hillary Clinton was replaced as secretary of state by former Senator John Kerry, and Jacob Lew was installed at the Treasury Department and Chuck Hagel at the Pentagon.
“I had gotten so despondent that I had thrown out my whole file on the cabinet,” said Marie Wilson, a women’s leadership advocate who is the founder of the White House Project, a New York-based nonprofit group. “The positions the women are in so far don’t look quite as meaty to me.”
The first woman to hold a cabinet post was Frances Perkins, selected in 1933 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to head the Department of Labor.
Obama’s early Cabinet picks revived criticism laid out in the book “Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President” by Ron Suskind. He quoted former White House Communications Director Anita Dunn as saying the environment was “hostile” to women. She later said Obama addressed those concerns.
Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Obama, dismissed such views.
“When people say it’s a boys’ club it’s a little insulting to the women who are actually playing very critical roles,” Jarrett said April 3 at a discussion on “Women in Washington” sponsored by the Atlantic.
The White House staff more broadly reflects the nation’s gender balance with women making up about half of the almost 500 employees, according to a list submitted in a 2011 report to Congress, the latest figures available. Still, men dominate the top ranks. Among the 21 employees listed in the report as making the top salary of $172,200 a year, a group that includes Carney and Jarrett, seven were women, the list showed.
Eight of Obama’s first-term Cabinet members are staying for now, including Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, and five months after his re-election he’s still filling openings. That’s left parts of his political coalition still waiting for high-level representation.
The number of Hispanics chosen for the cabinet has fallen from two in 2008 -- Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar -- to one, Tom Perez, nominated by Obama to replace Solis.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Ernest Moniz, whose nomination to be energy secretary is moving through the Senate, is of Portuguese descent, which activist groups such as the National Council of La Raza say doesn’t fit the traditional definition of Hispanic.
“We’re a little disappointed,” said Rafael Collazo, the group’s director of political campaigns. “We’ve been calling for full representation from the beginning of his first term.”
Collazo said La Raza and other Hispanic groups are turning their attention to lower-level posts for agency chiefs.
“There’s lot of other layers where there could be more representation of the best and the brightest Latinos,” he said.
Foxx, 41, would be Obama’s second black Cabinet officer , along with first-term pick Attorney General Eric Holder, who is remaining in his position. The position of United Nations ambassador, held by Susan Rice, who also is black, carries Cabinet-level rank.
Representative Marcia Fudge, an Ohio Democrat and chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus last month wrote in a letter to Obama last month that his second term appointments “have hardly been reflective of this country’s diversity.”
Fudge said in a statement yesterday that she was “especially pleased” by Foxx’s nomination.
“Anthony will surely be an asset to the President’s cabinet and to this nation,” she said.
Democratic Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi also chided the administration for not nominating more blacks to top jobs.
“Four months into his second term, we look to the president’s Cabinet appointments only to find that he has once again overlooked his most loyal constituency,” Thompson said while delivering the CBC’s weekly radio address on April 10.
The topic was even a laugh line at the annual dinner of the White House Correspondents Association April 27 in Washington.
“Mr. President, your hair is so white it could be a member of your cabinet,” joked comedian Conan O’Brien.
To contact the reporter on this story: Lisa Lerer in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
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