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.