President Obama has just started the process of filling his cabinet for his second term and is already under fire from progressives for failing to nominate a woman to head key positions such as Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense and Treasury. But does failing to nominate a woman for these posts, in the wake of high profile resignations like Hillary Clinton and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, really show that diversity in the Obama administration is under threat?
It’s not a simple question to answer in part because a cabinet secretary drives two independent but cooperative goals: carry out executive policy and establish agency culture. And in at least two cases when those two goals have come in conflict it would appear the president has chosen to go with a nominee that would stay true to the president’s immediate policy needs.
Let’s take this step-by-step, starting with Obama’s nomination for Secretary of State, Sen. John Kerry. Kerry is a highly qualified statesman and will be replacing Hillary Clinton who has done nothing but a brilliant job in the role. And Clinton follows a growing (by recent political history) line of women who have held the job as the country’s top ambassador, a line that would have continued had Obama’s first choice U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice not become the target of Republican witch hunters.
The nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska to lead the Department of Defense is a more complicated story. Hagel’s record shows a disdain for women’s rights (he supports an all-out ban on abortions) and LGBT rights (famously opposing Clinton ambassadorial nominee James Hormel because he was “aggressively gay” is just one example). Yet Hagel, a Vietnam veteran with a clear head about the costly and devastating mistakes of our previous administration in Iraq and Afghanistan, is precisely the kind of person we want leading DoD as the right bangs the drums of war. In that way he is brilliantly perfect for the job.
But his past statements and votes, at a time when military culture is undergoing a seismic cultural shift not witnessed since desegregation should raise some real concerns. For the first time ever, women in the military will be able to access abortion care on site, and a person’s sexual preference will no longer be a valid basis of discrimination. These are the first, consequential steps to dealing with the entrenched sexual and domestic violence in the military and they must be managed, from an agency standard, with guidance, care and support. And here is where appointing someone other than a conservative white man would have made the most difference.
The nomination of Jack Lew to head Treasury is a story similar to the Hagel nomination. If there is an agency in greater need of a culture-shift other than Defense, it is Treasury. It is, always has been, and remains, the province of white-boy privilege, a revolving door of Wall Street buddies who have convinced themselves they are always the smartest folks in the room. And on this point Lew is not much different. His brief stint at Citigroup corresponded with the mega-bank almost imploding. But, to his credit, as Obama’s chief-of-staff Lew reportedly had a significant role in the administrations’ fiscal cliff negotiations with Republicans that resulted in immediate tax increases and put off any dealings of earned-benefits cuts. In many ways, Lew is the pragmatic choice to lead the agency, especially as we go into another round of entrenched budget negotiations.
But for this position the administration has a deep pool of candidates to draw from. Especially women. And there’s no reason to think Lew’s negotiation strategy is something unique and intangible only to Lew. It’s not. Case in point: AIG. After receiving billions in bailout, AIG pissed off just about everybody when word got around that it was considering joining a lawsuit challenging its own bailout because it didn’t get more. Yes. I know. But it wasn’t until newly-sworn in Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) called AIG out that they voted against it. Would Lew have been similarly as bold?
Yet the administration has many, many more positions to fill and many of those are important. Ursula Burns is among the names circulating for Commerce, for example, and a woman at the head of the FCC would be significant. We also cannot overlook Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, nor the continued presence of Attorney General Eric Holder, and so on. The Obama administration remains a diverse administration.
My point is this: ethnic and gender diversity is not measured by head-count alone, nor is it a guarantee of any corresponding shift in culture. But sometimes it can be, and in two key positions–Defense and Treasury–we need it to be. Here, President Obama missed an opportunity to push for systemic change, which produces the greatest long-term support of his policy goals and instead focused on the task at hand. To that end Republican obstructionism won another round.
Photo taken from flickr creative commons