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Why Obama's White-Guy Problem Seems Worse Than It Is Why Obama's White-Guy Problem Seems Worse Than It Is

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White House

Why Obama's White-Guy Problem Seems Worse Than It Is

Male nominees and one particular female departure are among the reasons the president is developing an optics problem.

(AP Photos)()

photo of Jill Lawrence
January 9, 2013

The White House photo of the day on Wednesday showed President Obama meeting with eight “senior advisers,” three of them women. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Who would have thought the nation’s first black president would have an optics problem? But his parade of second-term nominations so far is white, male, and of a certain average age (62.3, to be exact), and The New York Times is taking note with an article and a photo that shows Obama meeting with 10 men.

Obama initially named four women to his Cabinet and he’s losing half of them so far: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and, as of Wednesday evening, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis. He still has Janet Napolitano at Homeland Security and Kathleen Sebelius at Health and Human Services. His administration also continues to include U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, whose position is considered “Cabinet level.” Lisa Jackson is resigning as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, but that is not a Cabinet-level job.

 

At lower levels, Obama has a decent record on women. The Times reports that 35 percent of all high-level political appointees outside the White House are female, about equal to Bill Clinton’s administration (and higher than 25 percent under George W. Bush). Obama has done even better at some departments; the Times cites Treasury, where 57 percent of appointees are men, compared with 60 percent under Clinton and 64 percent under Bush.

But a confluence of factors is making the frat-house syndrome seem worse than it is.

  1. Obama has in recent days nominated Sen. John Kerry to go to State, former Sen. Chuck Hagel to be Defense secretary, counterterrorism adviser John Brennan to head the CIA, and White House Chief of Staff Jacob Lew as his next Treasury secretary. All white, all guys.
  2. Hillary Clinton is leaving. Yes, I know I already said that. But she is such a powerful symbol and role model that her absence will leave a void larger than just one woman. In addition, her departure means that men will be in charge at State, Treasury, Defense and Justice—the top four Cabinet posts, ranking fourth through seventh in the presidential line of succession (after the vice president, House speaker and president pro tempore of the Senate).
  3. Three women in the running for top jobs, or who should have been serious candidates, have been passed over. Foremost is Rice, reportedly Obama’s top choice to succeed Clinton, but unable to convince key Republicans she did not mislead the public on the murders of U.S. personnel in Benghazi. Former Deputy Defense Secretary Michele Flournoy was a top candidate for the Pentagon job, but Obama chose Hagel. Lael Brainard, Treasury undersecretary for international affairs, much talked about in some circles to succeed outgoing Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, is losing out to Lew.
  4. The Obama White House, by some accounts, hasn’t always been a wonderful place for women to work. Christina Romer, former head of the Council of Economic Advisers, told author Ron Suskind that she was routinely outmaneuvered and at one particular meeting “felt like a piece of meat.” Suskind quoted former communications director Anita Dunn as saying that the White House could legally be classified as “a genuinely hostile workplace for women,” though she later said she had told him it was not hostile.
  5. Obama is a guy’s guy. He likes sports. A lot. And his 100-plus golf outings since taking office have been scandalously short of women. According to Mark Knoller of CBS News, the unofficial recorder of all things numerical that involve the White House, Obama’s golfing partners have included women only three times: once in October 2009, once in October 2010, and once this month during the president’s Hawaii vacation, when his foursome included Allison Davis. As for his other favorite game, basketball, has he played with any women? “Only his daughters, that we know of,” Knoller said, though he cautioned that information is limited. (Update: Knoller emails Thursday that "Allison" turns out to be a man, so we're back down to two female golf partners).

Say Obama wants to make a grand gesture; what jobs are left? If he names a female labor secretary to succeed Solis, that will keep him at the status quo. But it’s not a top job and it’s one many women have held. Plus Solis is Hispanic, so now there’s that to worry about as well.

The only immediate opening with stature roughly equivalent to secretary of State, Defense, or Treasury is Lew’s job as White House chief of staff. To name a woman, Obama would have to throw top mentionees Ron Klain (former chief of staff to Vice Presidents Al Gore and Joe Biden) and Denis McDonough (currently deputy national-security adviser) under the bus. He does have some logical female options, starting with Nancy-Ann DeParle and Alyssa Mastromonaco. Both now hold the title of deputy chief of staff.

Obama’s nominations to date make sense, given his commitments to multilateralism, diplomacy, ending two wars, cautious intervention abroad, institutionalizing the war on terror, getting military and entitlement spending under control, and other ideas he hopes will outlast him. Here’s one more: In Bill Clinton’s words, a Cabinet that “looks like America.”

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