President Obama is in a flap. His administration, like the movie The Hobbit, doesn’t have enough women in key roles. The last three White House staff announcements have featured the following people: John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, John Brennan and Jack Lew. All white dudes.
The New York Times energized elite conversation on this topic with a photograph on the front page of Wednesday’s paper. In it Obama addresses a semicircle of 10 male aides and Cabinet officials (the coalition of the besweatered). They are arrayed in precise formation, as if to block out senior adviser Valerie Jarrett who is barely visible in the picture. (She is so hard to find, CNN used a special shading to identify her leg.)
The president’s men are irritated by this criticism. The focus on this momentary snapshot, they argue, ignores the more complete picture. If that is so, they have only themselves to blame.
During the campaign, the president and his allies took every opportunity to pander to women voters, and never let a moment pass — whatever the pretext — to draw broad conclusions about Mitt Romney’s lack of concern for women. When a Romney aide didn’t have an immediate answer about the candidate’s position on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, it was portrayed as a dire sign.
It wasn’t just Romney’s shortcomings that created the conditions now bruising Obama. The rapid twitch to all things related to women and the relentless courting created a supercharged political atmosphere. When Hillary Rosen, a Democratic strategist unrelated to the Obama campaign, made a clumsy remark about Ann Romney “never working a day in her life,” Obama’s top strategist David Axelrod and campaign manager Jim Messina denounced her immediately so as not to offend women.
The most unintentionally hilarious moment came at a White House forum on women and the economy. The event was intended to show women voters, who are particularly sensitive to the weak economy, that the president cared about them. The forum was clearly treating women as an interest group. So, it was chuckle-worthy when the president declared, “Women are not an interest group.”
Since re-election, the Obama administration has not shrunk from playing the gender card. White House officials repeatedly asserted that U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice’s critics were only beating up on her for Benghazi controversy — and not the president or the CIA Director — because she was a woman. That is what the president appeared to be suggesting when he said Republicans were picking on Rice because she was an “easy target.”
If people are now drawing grand conclusions based on a few staff picks, it’s because the Obama team helped train them to do so.
The recent staff picks also link with a critique that has some validity. We’ve heard since the early days of the Obama administration that the inner circle has a male bias. We know this: If Barack Obama were facing a third election at least one of his top players at State, Defense, or Treasury would be held by a woman. Needing suburban women voters, the president just couldn’t afford to have a Cabinet where one of the faces most likely to be in the news cycle every day was not a woman.
But let’s not go overboard. The power of symbolism needs to be balanced against the practical effect of that symbolism. To put it into perspective, as my Slate colleague David Weigel pointed out, let’s imagine John McCain had won in 2008. We would have gotten to know Vice President Sarah Palin! And the policies she supported would have been far different for women than those supported by Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, who drafted, for example, the Violence Against Women Act.
President John McCain wouldn’t have signed the Lilly Ledbetter Act. It’s a bit too neat to correlate women in power with policies good for the broad swath of women.
It’s also amusing that Valerie Jarrett is the one hiding in that New York Times photo because it was The New York Times Magazine that helped promote the valid notion that Jarrett — an African-American woman — is the president’s most powerful adviser. Who are the two administration officials you have heard the most about in the last few months? Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice. Clinton has been the biggest rock star of the Obama Cabinet. If the president were such a brute, you’d imagine there would have been lots of stories about gender bias as he tried to rein in his top diplomat. There haven’t really been any.
Obama elevated U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice to Cabinet rank. When John Kerry recently got the nod for the State Department job, it was almost a diversity pick. He will be the first white male to hold that job in 16 years. (Though let’s not go overboard here either. The finance, national security, and defense establishment are still dominated more than other fields by white men.)
When Susan Rice’s name was being bandied about for State, the repeated assertion from administration sources was that the president was thinking about her because he trusted her. After all, he’d picked her to be his top foreign policy adviser in his first presidential campaign. When Rice withdrew her name, several administration aides strongly hinted that when the national security adviser post opens up, she’ll top the list.
Rice and Clinton are just a couple of the powerful women who have been in the Obama orbit. There’s also Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, Homeland Security Director Janet Napolitano, outgoing Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and outgoing EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. The president’s top lawyer and top domestic policy advisers are also women.
Obama named two women to the Supreme Court, one of whom was his former solicitor general in the Justice Department — a branch headed by an African-American man — and the other who was the first Hispanic woman named to the court. The Supreme Court arguably plays a more lasting role in determining gender and ethnic fairness in American society than any Cabinet post.
The Obama staff directory is a binder full of women. The White House itself employs more women than men. As The New York Times notes, about 43 percent of Obama’s appointees have been women, about the same proportion as in the Clinton administration, but up from the roughly one-third appointed by George W. Bush.
In the end, the only thing that has really changed so far from Obama’s first term is that the president intends to replace Hillary Clinton with a man. There are more Cabinet picks to come, which conceivably could increase the percentage of women in the final tally. Then we’ll see if the second Obama administration is as bad for women as Middle Earth.
John Dickerson is Slate’s chief political correspondent.