As he announces a succession of white men for Cabinet posts in his second term, the nation’s first black president is being slammed with a surprising critique: The lack of diversity in his administration.
Rep. Charlie Rangel of New York went on a rare offensive against President Obama today, calling the president’s record thus far “embarrassing as hell.” Rangel even compared Obama to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who was mocked for alluding during the debates to the “binders full of women” that he looked through to find women for his Massachusetts Cabinet when he was governor.
“We’ve been through all of this with Mitt Romney. And we were very hard on Mitt Romney with the women binder and a variety of things,” Rangel said. “I kinda think there’s no excuse when it’s the second term. If it’s the first term, you could see people got to know who is around and qualified in order to get this job, number one.”
“I had thought that it could be the Harvard problem, where people just know each other, trust each other. And women and minorities don’t get a chance to rub elbows, and their reputations and experience are not known … so in the second term, these people should be just as experienced as anybody, any other American.”
After the Washington Post published on Monday a story questioning Obama’s commitment to diversity, The New York Times also took a shot at the president with a front-page story Tuesday about the lack of women in his inner circle, accompanied by a picture showing the president seated in the Oval Office surrounded by a team of all men, except for senior adviser Valerie Jarrett. But the Times story was talking about gender diversity, while Rangel was talking about racial diversity.
Washington Post columnist Jena McGregor wrote that the “cringe-inducing photo” in the Times “looks more like the makings of a corporate softball team than the president’s top group of advisers.”
Ironically, these stories probably wouldn’t have been written if the president had appointed U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. That seemed to be his plan until Congressional Republicans got together and beat up on Rice for her performance on Sunday morning talk shows following the attack on the American consolate in Libya — moving Rice to withdraw her name from consideration. Rice, who is African-American, would have saved the president from putting forward three white men in a row — Sen. John Kerry as his pick for secretary of state, former Sen. Chuck Hagel as defense secretary and John Brennan for CIA chief.
At a White House press briefing Tuesday, Obama spokesman Jay Carney was forced to defend the president’s support of diversity, which was somewhat of an embarrassing spectacle, considering that Obama is a national symbol of the diversification of American leadership.
“The president values diversity, believes it’s important, because it enhances the quality of the pool of potential nominees for positions across the administration,” Carney said in response to the Times story. “He believes that by looking broadly for candidates for offices that [it] ups the chances he’ll find the very best person for the job.”
The White House also countered the Times photo by sending out a photo of its own, showing Obama in the Oval Office with a team of eight top advisers that included three women, including Jarrett.
As the Times pointed out, the Obama administration has done significantly better than the Bush administration but about the same as the Clinton administration in appointing women. About 43 percent of Obama’s and Clinton’s appointees have been women. That figure is up from the roughly one-third appointed by Bush, according to the Times.
“We’re not only getting better than previous administrations, but we also want to get better ourselves as well,” Nancy D. Hogan, assistant to the president and director of presidential personnel, said in response to the Times analysis. “The president puts a premium on making his team representative of the American people.”
The timing of these stories is crucial because as the president and his advisers consider new hires, they will likely be much more sensitive to diversity than perhaps they were last week.