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Criticizing the Criticism of Obama's Cabinet

President-elect Barack Obama has finished making the selections to his Cabinet. Per the Washington Post, Obama's Cabinet will have nine White males, five women, four Blacks, three Latinos, two Asians, and two Republicans. While this Cabinet's diversity has been praised by the media, there have been significant rumblings from several liberal groups who somehow feel underrepresented.

For example, feminist groups have sharply criticized Obama for not choosing enough women for his Cabinet. Out of the 20 Cabinet positions Obama has announced, five of these positions have been filled by women. Women's groups' reactions to this have ranged from disappointment to outrage. Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, said, "When you are looking at a Cabinet and you have such a small number of women in the room when the big decisions are being made, there need to be a lot more women's voices in this administration." New Agenda co-founder Amy Siskind asserted that "this constituency does not matter to the president-elect."

Obama would be wise to ignore these criticisms and not buy into this rhetoric.

First of all, the assertion that women "do not matter" to Obama is both ridiculous and stupid. As the father of two young girls, the husband of a professional woman, and a child who was largely raised by his mother and grandmother, women have played an integral role in Obama's life. By his biography alone, women obviously matter to Obama.

But it goes beyond that.

Obama had been bedeviled by Hillary Clinton for months during the primaries. He was dogged by her after she suspended her campaign. And he was still being haunted by her after the party conventions. He had to deal with the rogue women-led PUMA faction that was threatening to support the McCain-Palin ticket because Obama did not choose Clinton to be his vice president. And he was criticized for not helping her retire her debt fast enough. How did he react to all of this? By asking her to serve as Secretary of State.

Secretary of State is one of the top three Cabinet positions in any administration (with the other two being Treasury and Defense). By choosing Clinton for State, he immediately silenced the PUMAs (if they were even still relevant after the election), bolstered his standing among women (who may feel a fictive kinship with Clinton even if they might not agree with her politics), and helped strengthen unity among Democrats.

The selection of Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano to be the Secretary of Homeland Security is also a very big deal. This high profile Cabinet position entails a tremendous amount of responsibility. Judging from its name alone, many people would probably stereotypically associate "homeland security" with "men." But Napolitano will be the first woman to occupy this position. And as the popular governor of a border state, she is certainly qualified for this job. Therefore, women's groups should be enthusiastic about this selection.

But it seems that these critics are thinking more about numbers. President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush had similar numbers of women in their Cabinets, so these feminist groups may have expected more in terms of "progress." But they aren't the only ones who have been critical of Obama's selections.

Again, Obama named five women to his cabinet. This very easily could have been four because New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson was lobbying hard for Clinton's new job. Obama eventually tapped Richardson to be his Secretary of Commerce, but that selection was met with warnings from Latino groups that Obama needed to choose more Latinos. Selecting Richardson for Secretary of Commerce didn't sit too well with columnist Ruben Navarrette who claimed that "the way [Richardson] was treated doesn't say much about Obama's respect for the Hispanic community."

(Perhaps Obama's support for "comprehensive immigration reform" instead of mass deportations is less important to Latinos than I originally thought.)

So it seems that Obama is in a no-win situation. If he chooses someone from Group X, he risks offending Group Y. And if he chooses someone from Group X and another person from Group Y, then members of Group Z become upset because they were somehow left out.

And therein lies the problem.

If diversity is reduced to mere numbers, that cheapens the qualifications of the people being selected. Pending confirmation, Hillary Clinton will be a Secretary of State who is also a female, not a female Secretary of State. To view Clinton strictly in terms of her gender trivializes her obvious qualifications and experience. The same could be said for Bill Richardson. As a governor, he has managed budgets and dealt with trade issues. So he is qualified to be Secretary of Commerce. But he risks being turned into a Hispanic Secretary of Commerce, as if his skin color matters more than his knowledge of budgeting and economics.

This overemphasis on identity politics is a common criticism of Republicans and conservatives when it comes to diversity. However, the problem for Republicans is that too many of them don't seem to take this issue seriously. "Diversity" is often met with derision in conservative circles because it is either equated with the abuses of affirmative action or is seen as a threat to their own cultures and beliefs.

Conservatives claim they see no skin color or gender. They want everyone to "assimilate" and become "Americans" just like "the rest of us." Of course, this thinking is an affront to people who wish to retain their culture and don't like being pressured to change who they are just so they can satisfy some criteria that is being set by their equals. Guillermo Gonzalez in Pueblo, Colorado, is just as American as Jim Jones in Paducah, Kentucky. But Republicans seem to argue that more people should be like Jim Jones because he speaks English as his first and only language, says "Merry Christmas" instead of "Happy Holidays," and eats hot dogs instead of hummus.

Of course, the problem is that skin color, gender, and diversity are very real issues that matter to a lot of people. Until Republicans realize that they can't exist as a viable national party if they continue to marginalize so many groups of people by not respecting their identities or reaching out to their communities, they will continue to remain in the political minority.

What makes this debate over diversity in Obama's Cabinet unique, however, is that it is liberals who are doing the bulk of the complaining. Obama has obviously thought carefully about these selections. All of his choices are competent and qualified individuals from diverse backgrounds. But there are only so many positions available. Where will it end? Is Obama about to experience backlash from left-handed voters? How many of Obama's Cabinet selections come from Vermont or South Dakota? Will cat owners be the next group to blast Obama's "diversity?" How will he rectify the fact that there aren't any Buddhists in his Cabinet? Or is that secondary to the fact that there aren't any third-generation biracial Laotian immigrants in his Cabinet either?

These constituencies should relax and give Obama a chance to at least take the Oath of Office first. The policies his administration advocates will be a lot more important to these groups than the identities of the people advocating them. President Bush's Cabinet is about as diverse as Obama's will be, and experience has shown that the Bush Administration's policies are having a more profound effect on far more people than the skin color and anatomy of the people making the policies.

Obama has an approval rating of almost 80%. Partisan Republicans and hardline conservatives will automatically disapprove of everything Obama does, so that should not be a surprise. But if his Cabinet picks alone are enough to make people disapprove of his leadership, then some liberals will be in for a long four or eight years.

But maybe Obama is actually happy to be attacked by the left. Ironically, these complaints from liberals are actually making Obama more politically powerful because the more liberals criticize Obama, the more difficult it is for Republicans to paint him as a leftist radical. And many Republicans who had reservations about Obama's ideology because he was "the most liberal member of the Senate" may actually be pleasantly surprised.

Obama's electoral landslide and a second consecutive congressional Republican wipeout should force Republicans to reassess how important diversity is and how they should reach out to people of color and other demographic minorities. But by the same token, Obama's presidency should force Democrats to reassess what diversity actually means and how it should be achieved. Reducing his Cabinet to a sterile assortment of demographic statistics runs contrary to Obama's message of tolerance, unity, and respect. It seems that some unhappy liberals may need to reassess their own tolerance and heed these calls for unity because their unfounded criticisms and laughable hyperbole threaten to marginalize them just as much as the politicians Obama defeated on November 4.

4 comment(s):

S.W. Anderson said...

I agree wholeheartedly. I saw a story on some women being miffed and said to myself, that figures. Then, I saw a story pointing out the complete lack of a southerner among Obama's Cabinet choices, and I gagged.

I understand the identity politics where a struggling minority speaks up for its place at the table. That's integral to American history. By and large, it's been good for various struggling minorities and for the country as a whole. However, I just don't see the South as a struggling minority.

I also don't understand mindless carping and backbiting because a president hasn't gone down a checklist of groups, being oh so careful not to leave any of them out.

We're sure to hear more sturm and drang from liberals with their nose out of joint because of something Obama has or hasn't done. The man is just not a doctrinaire liberal. The reality is that he's a pragmatic moderate activist with some liberal leanings.

That should come as no surprise, considering his record and the campaign he ran.

How ironic that conservative Republicans distorted Obama's politics for their own purposes, and some liberals evidently bought into the Republicans' distortions. The lesson to take from this is that it pays to listen to what Obama says, because he's remarkably up front about his M.O. and intentions.

BTW, I would've preferred to see Obama appoint Richard A. Clarke director of Homeland Security, and Gen. Wesley Clark as director of national intelligence. That's not because of their age, color, ethnicity or choice of power ties. It's because they're both excellent men and exceptionally well qualified for those posts.

Khaki Elephant said...

I'll have plenty to criticize later, but for today . . .
Merry Christmas, Anthony!

Anthony Palmer said...


I've always thought of Obama as a liberal-leaning pragmatist. I think he realizes that a lot of what he may ultimately want to accomplish may not be feasible in his first few months of office, but it may be possible in time if he builds up enough trust with the electorate. Look for women and gays to be very, very happy with him by the end of his term. But it seems that a lot of these groups want him to give them everything now, but that's just not possible and that's not who Obama is. I think everyone should just relax and wait until his policies get put into effect before they go and blast him for betrayal. The fact that moderates, most liberals, and even conservatives are praising his Cabinet should tell him that he's doing something right.



And a belated Merry Christmas to you and your family as well! Be well, and best wishes for a happy and prosperous New Year.

King Politics said...

Anthony, I agree with the substance of your comments, but we must also recognize how important "symbolic" these cabinet positions are. Quite frankly, even the strongest of personalities can have difficulty moving the direction of great, big federal bureaucracies. We all know this. This makes the appointment of the department head merely symbolic. And, to a seasoned political observer as yourself, this might seem inconsequential, but to most Americans (causal observers of politics at best, completely ignorant at worst), Cabinet appointments matter because of the symbolism. So, we can't just wish away the critics.

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