Will Obama Boost His Cabinet's Diversity?

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(The Root) — Between now and the inauguration on Jan. 21, The Root will be taking a daily look at the president's record on a number of policy issues, including his first-term accomplishments and what many Americans hope to see him accomplish in a second term. Today: cabinet appointments. See previous postings in this series here.


Background: It is arguable that whom he appoints to his cabinet is the most important decision a president can make, since his cabinet ends up shaping his most significant policy decisions. For instance, it is unlikely that there would have been a war in Iraq had President George W. Bush not had the fervent support of cabinet members like his secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld. 

Since Robert C. Weaver became the first African-American cabinet member when he served as President Lyndon Johnson's secretary of housing and urban development, and Patricia Roberts Harris served in the same role in the Carter administration, presidents have been judged not only for their cabinets' policy positions but also by their ethnic, racial and gender diversity. (It's worth noting that much earlier, President Franklin Roosevelt consulted African-American advisers, including Weaver and Mary McLeod Bethune, on a regular basis as part of what was dubbed the "Black Cabinet.") When asked about his plans for diversity within his own cabinet should he win the presidency, then-candidate Barack Obama said in 2007 that he would look for political diversity as well, naming Republicans like Sen. Dick Lugar and even Arnold Schwarzenegger as possible cabinet nominees.

First-term accomplishments: One of the president's most surprising, yet politically deft early moves was to nominate his former rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to be his secretary of state. The move, combined with his selection of former opponent Joe Biden as his vice president, led many pundits to compare Obama to a modern-day Abraham Lincoln, remembered for stocking his own cabinet with former opponents, known as his "team of rivals."

Additionally, the president's first cabinet reflected the nation's diversity, with four women, two Latinos and an Asian American in addition to white males. His secondary cabinet posts were diverse as well, with Lisa Jackson serving as the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Susan Rice serving as ambassador to the United Nations and Ron Kirk serving as U.S. trade representative. They are all African American.

Second-term hopes: Unfortunately, the president's second-term cabinet nominations have not yet reflected the diversity of his first. Even more disturbing to some, they have not reflected the diversity of his Republican predecessor's. George W. Bush nominated four African Americans to cabinet posts. The president's most recent nominees — Sen. John Kerry, Sen. Chuck Hagel and Jack Lew — are white men.

"It's embarrassing as hell," Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) said about the criticism of the president's cabinet diversity. "We've been through all of this with Mitt Romney. And we were very hard on Mitt Romney with his 'women binder' and a variety of things. And I kind of think there's no excuse when it's the second term." In the president's defense, it was widely reported that he was poised to nominate Susan Rice to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. That nomination was thwarted by conservatives before it could even officially be made, in what will widely be remembered by history as a witch hunt.


But in the eyes of a number of progressive critics, although Rice withdrew from consideration, the perception is that the president may not have signaled that he was willing to fight for her the way he has been willing to fight for Hagel. (Hagel was actually one of the Republicans he mentioned for cabinet consideration when he was asked about it during the 2008 presidential campaign.) Also, the fact that Rice was one of the few black women at a high-enough level within his administration to choose from was troubling to many, and signaled that his diversity problem might not be limited to his appointments but might also extend to his staff.

This sentiment was only furthered after the New York Times published a photo of the president with several of his key advisers — all of them men. (Click here to see a list of some of the most powerful black men and women serving within the Obama administration and beyond.) In a letter to the president, Rep. Marcia Fudge, the new chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, suggested qualified women and men of color for consideration for administration nominations, including Rep. Melvin Watt (D-N.C.) for commerce secretary and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) for labor secretary.


The president responded to the criticism, saying in a White House press conference, "I would just suggest that everybody kind of wait until they've seen all my appointments, who is in the White House staff and who is in my cabinet, before they rush to judgment. Until you've seen what my overall team looks like, it's premature to assume that somehow we're going backwards. We're not going backwards; we're going forward." 

Only time will tell if that promise proves true in the diversity of his second-term cabinet. 


Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter