Minority Advocates Watching Obama

Michael D. Shear, Washington Post, November 29, 2008

Barack Obama’s friend and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett likens the effort of piecing together a Cabinet for the president-elect to assembling a puzzle. The co-chair of his transition, John D. Podesta, promised that his team will “keep our eye on the ball” as it attempts to balance racial diversity, gender and ideology in building a White House operation and stocking the Cabinet.

The president-elect has already signaled that he will make a number of historic appointments. Obama is poised to nominate the first black attorney general and one of the nation’s highest-profile women as its chief diplomat. A Hispanic governor is the leading candidate to become commerce secretary.

But as Jarrett recognized early, every appointment he makes to the 15-member Cabinet reduces by one the opportunities he has to make sure another group is represented. It is a zero-sum game that leaves presidents with little wiggle room.

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The NAACP and other groups are watching Obama’s appointments closely, an example of the scrutiny under which the new president is already operating. Jealous [Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP] said his group wants Obama to appoint leaders at the departments of Justice, Labor, Education and Health and Human Services who will actively enforce the nation’s civil rights laws.

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Women’s groups are hoping to build on the progress that Obama has already appeared to make, with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) the all-but-certain secretary of state and Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano the nominee for secretary of homeland security.

Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D), an early Obama supporter, is being considered for agriculture. Tammy Duckworth, the Iraq war veteran who lost both legs in that conflict, could be the next secretary of veterans affairs. Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm (D) might end up as the secretary of energy. And several women are potential choices to head up the Environmental Protection Agency.

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“Groups that are concerned with racial and gender diversity are certainly wise to keep the pressure on,” said Paul C. Light, a professor of public policy at New York University. But he said questions of diversity among Obama’s closest confidants should go beyond those characteristics to include their worldview, their educational background, their work history and their ideological allegiances.

On those scores, it is less clear that Obama is building a diverse team. The individuals who are known are experienced politicians who would be familiar to anyone studying administrations of the past. None represents the kind of radical break from the government as usual that some of Obama’s supporters expected.

“This is not a team of rivals as much as it is a team of experienced Washington insiders,” Light said.

Obama addressed that concern directly at a news conference on Wednesday, defending his decision to tap establishment figures—especially for his economic team—by saying that the members of his Cabinet need experience to tackle the big problems facing the nation.

He said people looking for change from his administration should not focus too closely on his Cabinet choices.

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Hispanics are hoping to see representation beyond New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), who is the leading candidate to become commerce secretary. In addition to Labor, Villaraigosa is thought to be in the running to lead the department of Housing and Urban Development. Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) is a leading candidate to be secretary of the interior.

But Obama will ultimately be judged by the broader swath of appointments he makes, including his White House staff, the senior-level staff around the secretaries and the other political appointees who fill the agencies.

Already, Obama has made appointments that have been well received by groups that are pushing for diversity. This week, he appointed Cecilia Muñoz as the White House director of intergovernmental affairs. Muñoz is a senior vice president at the National Council of La Raza.

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