President Obama's Cabinet meetings will surely feature spirited debates and discussions of pressing issues. There is, however, one thing we're unlikely to hear: a Southern drawl.
Assuming the Senate confirms his final two nominees, Obama will have assembled a Cabinet that includes some of the most high-caliber minds and powerhouse politicians ever to serve in government. In doing so, however, Obama has passed over the South. Not one of his 15 Cabinet secretaries were born or raised in a region that until recently was considered the country's dominant source of power. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a holdover from President Bush, ran Texas A&M University earlier this decade, but his only other ties south of the Mason-Dixon Line are from his own college days. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spent 18 years in Arkansas, of course, but she was raised in Illinois and has worked hard since 2000 to establish New York as her political base.
And so, four months after he carried three Southern states (Virginia, North Carolina and Florida), came close in a fourth (Georgia) and expressed regrets that he didn't run harder in a fifth (Texas), Obama has drawn together a top circle of advisers that lacks a real mouth from the South. Indeed, roughly half of Obama's Cabinet hails from three of the country's bluest (and, admittedly, most populous) states -- California, Illinois and New York. Whether by design or not, he also apparently showed special preference to states he knew as a child: Kansas, where Gates grew up and Kathleen Sebelius is governor; and Hawaii, home of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. Only four secretaries (Sebelius, Gates, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano of Arizona and Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Missouri native) come from states that backed Sen. John McCain last fall.
Very few of the party's most talented and high-profile Southerners were apparently even on the Cabinet short list.
Did the first Democratic president in 64 years to run without a Southerner on his ticket snub the South? Not intentionally, perhaps. He has, more importantly, drawn high praise for putting together a talented team. Still, it's a notable oversight considering how carefully the president's team weighed the factors of race, gender and ideology in assembling the group, which includes four women, two Hispanics, one African-American and three Asians.
And it's an oversight that could have political repercussions. Cabinet secretaries traditionally play subtle, but visible, roles in campaign politics, making "official" but politically tinged appearances to tout administration programs in key states. Democratic fortunes in the 2010 midterms will determine the success of Obama's first-term agenda, and his re-election prospects in 2012, and big Senate races are already brewing in Arkansas, Florida, North Carolina, Kentucky and Louisiana. In those states, the administration will lack a hometown voice to help warm up the crowds.
Indeed, while Obama and Democrats have made great progress over the past four years to expand the playing field to traditionally red states, the 2008 elections solidified a shift of political power away from the South and heartland and toward the coasts.
Most notably California, which, as the Economist noted recently, could be the biggest winner of 2008. The Golden State may not gain a House seat after the next post-Census reapportionment, for the first time since it entered the union, but it's doing pretty well with the seats it has.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi saw her party's ranks swell dramatically in the House, and three House Democrats (George Miller, Henry Waxman and Jane Harman) run powerful committees or subcommittees. Sixteen years after they entered the Senate together, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer hold powerful sway as committee chairs.
It's unclear whether Obama's oversight is hurting him with southern voters, but the region could present Obama with significant challenges. A Gallup weekly tracking poll conducted March 3-8 shows his job approval rating in the South is now slightly lower (58 percent) than in the East, Midwest or West. That number has fallen 6 points since the week of his inauguration, a drop 1 point larger than in any other region.
Will Obama rise again? Stay tuned.
UPDATE: This column was updated to reflect new Gallup polling at 10:22 a.m. on March 11.
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