Obama’s Diversity Problem?

I’m seeing a lot of talk today surrounding the gender and ethnic make-up of Obama’s cabinet going into the next four years. With the rumours that Jack Lew, the current White House Chief of Staff, is going to be nominated as Treasury Secretary as early as today it seems like the entire internet media corps is up in arms at the fact that there will be no females in the top three cabinet posts; Sen. John Kerry is going to State, Lew to Treasury, and former Sen. Chuck Hagel to Defence. That fire was further inflamed today with the news that the Secretary for Labour Hilda Solis would be leaving her post. Combing that with the news that Hillary Clinton is leaving State and retiring from politics, for a “little while” anyway, two female heavyweights in the Obama Cabinet is gone.

The question for me, though, is are Obama’s top-tier choices proof of his diversity problem, or is it just evidence of a reality where the only men for the job just happen to be that – men. And I think the answer actually lies in the middle; Obama doesn’t have a problem, but neither do I think that there exists a reality where only men are the most suitable candidates for the job. There are women qualified for these cabinet positions, and well able for them, and frankly Obama isn’t afraid to put a woman, or any other minority for that fact, into them.

Irin Carmon, a staff writer for Salon.com which is a daily online magazine, declared in the subhead of one of her latest posts that Obama’s recent picks “belie[d] the administration’s rhetoric on diversity” before going on to say in the body of her piece that

Diversity in any sense is something that doesn’t really happen unless you try, and if the Obama administration is trying with its top-level appointments, other priorities have clearly trumped it.

I would take great issue with both this and her subhead. To date, Obama has been faced only with three vacancies in the most public of his administration’s posts – State, Treasury, and Defence. And it’s not that Obama had a reality where he couldn’t pick a woman, or the problem of no women to pick because the fact of the matter is that, arguably,  the most important of these jobs – State – was going to go to a woman. Rice. I have no doubt in my mind, and neither do most political commentators that Rice was going to get this job and we all need to remember that Obama didn’t not pick her, as it were, but she herself pulled herself out of contention. She didn’t want to be nominated.

So does that “belie” their remarks? I don’t think so. Obama sought to have a woman fill at least one of these spots, that woman declined. The most qualified woman in the world, Hillary Clinton (also the incumbent), didn’t want to stay on, and the next most qualified person just happened to be a man – Senator John Kerry. And these aren’t subjective opinions either, Kerry’s ability and suitability for the job are echoed everywhere and I personally have yet to come across a credible opinion voicing their disapproval with the pick on grounds other than he’s a Senate Democrat. And did the Obama administration try? Yes, it did, all evidence pointed to the fact that Obama would be happy to fight for Rice in the Senate confirmation process but Rice pulled herself out, not the other way around.

I turn also to her belief that other priorities may have trumped the objective to diversify. I’m sorry, but if I’m President of the United States I want people in my cabinet who are the most qualified to do the job, I’m not going to think “but I already have 10 men, I better discount all other men who could do the job to choose a woman who might be less qualified”. That’s not to say all women are less qualified either by the by, so don’t even try and bring that up; I am a believer in gender quotas, to an extent. Does gender affect job performance and/or suitability to do the job? I don’t believe so. Do I think that Obama had women on his short-list and actively pushed for their consideration? Absolutely. Do I think the decision not to pick them was based solely on their gender? I think the previous Obama administration as well as the character of Obama himself would suggest otherwise. He has no problem in picking women for important jobs. Just because he didn’t do so now doesn’t mean he changed his mind, it just means there were other, probably better qualified people for the jobs. So does this mean other priorities may have trumped the objective? Probably, but I doubt they were frivolous policies and I highly doubt they were taken with the intent to exclude women from the position.

Obama is most definitely trying to diversify, there isn’t a problem and there isn’t a reality where he can’t do so either. He put two women on the Supreme Court, one of whom was Hispanic. He has female cabinet officials, and has a multitude of female advisers. In fact, I actually question whether this issue would have even arisen should Susan Rice have been nominated at State – even if Solis retired anyway. I have to repeat this, but Susan Rice pulled out of the running, Obama didn’t take her out. To suggest then that it’s Obama who has a problem with diversity is ridiculous.

As I stated in another piece, Obama seems to be putting his new administration together based on similarities to his own policies on certain issues. To a great extent that was not the case in his first cabinet, as both the Iraq War, the state of US foreign relations globally, as well as an ailing economy forced him to seek both continuity and overall expertise to aide him. This meant that his own policy wasn’t always at the fore. But that is the case now. Jack Lew is going to be selected as Treasury Secretary because he’s a budget mastermind and fixing the budget is something Obama wants to do. Could Sheila Bair have been a good pick? Yes, but she’s more financial markets driven than Lew is, something Obama has already addressed in the past four years with Timoty Geithner at the helm of the Treasury Department.

Would Michele Flournoy have been a better pick at Defence than Hagel? It depends on the President’s policies and objectives. Obama served with Hagel in the Senate, has the same views as him on the Iraq and Afghanistan war, and Hagel is a both veteran of the Vietnam war and a foreign policy analyst expert. Flournoy has a massive portfolio of experience at various levels in the Department of Defence and if Obama wanted someone intimate with the management of the Pentagon I have no doubt he would have chosen her, but he didn’t. Was it based on her gender? No, it wasn’t, it had to do with the direction of the administration. So did other policies trump diversity, as it were, in both this case and the previous? Yes, obviously they did. But please, Ms. Carmon, don’t say it like other policies pale in comparison. The direction of the policy of the United States, and the harmony of such in cabinet, is a good deal important. I would posit that women should be insulted if they’re put into positions solely because of their gender, especially if they hold views or policies the President doesn’t really want to go with.

In fact I think Obama’s choice not to go with Flournoy shows he’s actually very serious about the issue of diversity. He could have put the first woman in charge of the Pentagon in place, and he didn’t. He put Flournoy’s gender out of the criteria and, I’m assuming, judged the candidates on policy similarity and ability to do the job. He didn’t do it for diversity for the sake of diversity, which seems to be what former GOP presidential candidate and Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee suggest Obama should have opted for when he sarcastically said

Give ’em contraceptives and abortions. But don’t worry about positions of authority. They shouldn’t be asking for such things

Obama has consistently proven he’s not afraid to be putting women in positions of authority. He’s consistently shown that it’s not only men who are qualified for the job either, and for commentators to be suggesting that the fact he chose not to do so here is an example of a “diversity problem” the President has is just crazy. Women should be judged on merit, not on gender. Yes, put in place quotas or regulations that means there are women among the candidates, but at the end of the day picking a woman for the sake of her being a woman is frankly insulting, and I’m not even a woman.

Will Obama’s second-term administration be less diverse than the first? Probably, but it’s too early to tell yet. But is this proof that this a diversity problem, or that he’s given up caring about the issue? I really don’t think so. Obama has shown that women were most definitely considered, and I have no doubt that at least one was probably going to be nominated. There also doesn’t seem to be a high turnover in his second-term, at least thus far, and firing someone just to replace them with a woman seems a little harsh just for diversity’s sake.

I’m amused at the fact that both neo-conservatives and liberals alike are combined in their shock and horror at this apparent lack of diversity because it really is a gross misrepresentation of Obama’s record on diversity. This story wouldn’t be happening if neocons hadn’t been up in arms about the possibility of the nomination of Susan Rice. That’s the honest truth. And liberals are doing Rice a great disservice by implying that just because she’s not in State her opinion means nothing. She’s still at the UN, and she’s still a trusted advisor to the President – just because he couldn’t have her in State due to her withdrawing her name, doesn’t mean he’s going to alienate her when issues of foreign affairs do come up. And if this is all about image? Image is important, but I’d rather have effective policy-making thanks. Using image as an excuse is akin to using the appointing women for the sake of being a woman excuse and both don’t hold water with me.

In short, and in repeat I’m sure, Obama doesn’t have a diversity problem. He never has had that. The only problem in that regard that he does have is commentators misrepresenting his record because this time around there happens to be less women cabinet. It wasn’t his lack of trying. This faux outrage is just plain ridiculous.

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