Congressman Charlie Rangel was evidently in no mood for pulling punches the other day when he weighed in on the matter of picks the president had to that point made for his second-term cabinet. It was “embarrassing as hell,” Rangel said. This was the congressman joining in pushback against the white male bias reflected in the choices Obama announced for state, defense, treasury and C.I.A. director. Parrying the mini assault, the president noted that it was early yet in the process of filling his cabinet slots. But, given the first term as precedent, raising a bit of a ruckus over these early indications may not have been all that indelicate or unjustified, albeit coming from Obama partisans.
The point surely couldn’t be lost on any reasonable observer that upon his historic election in ’08, fixation with a “black” presidency was precisely where Barack Obama’s head didn’t need to be. And, savvy operator that he is, no way was this president going there. But that being said, there’s no reason that with respect to cabinet choices, the new president could not have followed the path first walked by Bill Clinton in his determination to have a cabinet “that looks like America” back in 1992.
As far as the inclusion of Blacks, although UN Ambassador Susan Rice and senior advisor Valerie Jarrett were given what are regarded as cabinet-rank positions, as “frontline” cabinet posts go, Attorney General Eric Holder has for the most part been the one publicly identifiable African American cabinet figure. By that yardstick, coming up being bested big time on the diversity front by George W. Bush’s record on cabinet choices means effectively throwing folks into double-take territory… even allowing for the Bush selectees being “black” or “minority” with an asterisk.
Jarrett — who is said to have the president’s ear to a degree that might be the envy, reportedly, of other inner circle players – is probably a good bet to return for second-term duty. But curiosity naturally surrounds Rice, after all the hubbub the Benghazi incident generated and what it did to short-circuit the speculation about her being in line to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. She and Obama are supposedly close friends but one wonders, after a post-Benghazi trail that wasn’t as smooth as it might have been (indeed quite bizarre, to be blunt about it), whether she will be retained as UN ambassador, whether she cares to be, or what other role, if any, she’ll be asked to assume in Obama II.
Generally, though, Obama’s first-tem showing on diversity, as it pertains to women, was one the administration didn’t have much about which to be defensive…at least as far as high profile placements. Clearly out front in this regard would be the two Supreme Court vacancies the president filled. The elevation of Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, in the process tripling the distaff component the Court has had since the 1980s, was bold, momentous action for which the president deserves credit, certainly not just from the women’s lobby. Entrusting to Janet Napolitano (who is rumored to be a second term holdover) what would normally be perceived as the typically male domain homeland security portfolio demonstrated uncommon Obama spunk as well.
One would imagine that, given the strategic role the Hispanic vote played in many parts of the country last November, to the president’s and Democrats’ advantage, he must be getting an earful about tangible manifestations of gratification for that support. Hilda Solis was the secretary of labor and the sole Hispanic in Obama’s 15-member first term cabinet. If she’s not returning, it’s pretty safe to assume that the Hispanic element will be represented when they gather in the Cabinet Room for the first time in th new term.
And what of the African American presence in the new schematic? Truth be told, it’s really no longer early in the timeline for revelation of names and assignments, as the president countered, with the Inauguration but a few days away. What’s behind this unseemly delay in announcing the bulk of cabinet appointments? What’s the buzz on Eric Holder – will he be back and whether or not he will be, has the president thought to enhance the African American component among the 15 he designates as Cabinet Room regulars? There’s second-term leverage here, some of which, if invested toward that end, would elicit a full-throated “Amen!” from a broad swath of the brethren.
Congressman Rangel, even if he jumped the gun a bit by popping off after a relatively small piece of the cabinet personnel mystery had been revealed, was definitely not alone in that discernible angst over how will the president be tracking, in terms of major appointments, in round two. Despite some on the Republican side brazenly acting like November’s election results are not yet carved in stone, the president knows well that among the spoils of battle was shedding some of the first-term restraints that perhaps warranted treading gingerly on occasion. No more. And where better to project a robust new independence than in the cabinet, that special knot of men and women with whom he regularly counsels? Men and women of proven ability, obviously. But with first-term inhibitions put to rest, “looking like America” among the criteria would be pretty neat this time around.