Identity politics in the Democratic Party are already presenting challenges to President-elect Barack Obama, who is under pressure to appoint Hispanics and African-Americans to key posts in his administration.
Both groups were crucial to Obama’s victory last week over Republican John McCain. Ninety-six percent of African-American voters cast ballots for Obama, while 67 percent of Hispanic voters supported him, according to exit polls.
Both are now counting on Obama to appoint Hispanic and African-American politicians to his Cabinet as a way of rewarding their support.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Hispanic who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination but later endorsed Obama, should be secretary of State, a coalition of 35 Hispanic groups said in a Nov. 11 letter to the president-elect obtained by The Hill.
The letter did not allude directly to the role Hispanic voters played in helping Obama win states such as Florida, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada, all of which went to President Bush four years ago. But it did congratulate Obama on his “historic and decisive victory” in the election.
Hilary Shelton, the director of the NAACP’s Washington bureau, has called on Obama to appoint a Cabinet with more diversity than the Cabinets of Presidents Bush and Clinton. Shelton has also called for an African-American to fill Obama’s Senate seat, a decision over which the incoming president is expected to have much influence.
While Blagojevich [Gov.[Rod Blagojevich of Illinois] will make the two-year temporary appointment, Illinois political insiders say that Obama will have significant influence over the decision.
Two members of the Congressional Black Caucus are vying for the seat: Reps. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) and Danny Davis (D-Ill.).
Obama is expected to assemble a racially diverse Cabinet. One Democratic insider told The Hill that Obama, aware of the importance of the country’s fastest-growing group, is looking to surpass the bar set by Clinton, who appointed two Hispanics to his Cabinet at the beginning of his administration.
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), an early Obama supporter, is widely seen as a possible pick as secretary of State. If Richardson gets the nod instead, it would bump the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee.
As the first black president, Obama will be under pressure to appoint African-Americans. But he may be under even more pressure to appoint Hispanics, whose support could prove critical to Democrats’ retaining power in Washington.
Democrats see an opportunity to seize and hold onto Hispanics after Republican efforts to do the same under President Bush were devastated by an inflammatory debate over immigration that was viewed by many Hispanics as racist in tone.
Talk about Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) becoming secretary of the Department of the Interior is so loud in Colorado political circles that some in the state are already discussing who might take his Senate seat.
Guillermo Meneses, a Democratic strategist who advised Richardson’s presidential run, said Hispanics are “certainly going to have an important role in the Cabinet,” given the way they supported Obama.