In 1992, Bill Clinton famously promised to appoint a Cabinet that “looks like America.” He followed through, tapping women and minorities for high-ranking positions and overseeing an administration more diverse than any that had come before it. President Bush continued this tradition, appointing two African-Americans to his national security/foreign policy team.
But now all this progress seems to pale in comparison to the history made Nov. 4, with this “first” being less groundbreaking than plate-shifting. To borrow the oft-used sports analogy, after years of seeing Jackie Robinsons take the field in different professions, the American people finally put one in the owner’s box.
But now that we have a black Branch Rickey in Barack Obama, what does that mean for the rest of the team? Put in political terms, does our first African-American president, elected with a rainbow coalition, have more of an imperative to appoint an administration that includes minorities in high-ranking positions?
Not really, is the answer supplied by a group of prominent African-Americans. Having a team of varied faces is preferable and in keeping with Obama’s pledge to represent all Americans — but these veteran black politicians and public officials say the president-elect should tap into the best talent available without taking a head-counting approach, in which slots are determined by demographics and symbolism trumps substance.
To some degree, Obama’s election is so historic that he is post-racial when it comes to choosing those who will work most closely with him.
“He will assemble a Cabinet that I think reflects a modern-day array of talent,” said Rep. Artur Davis, the Alabama Democrat who endorsed Obama early in the primary. “I don’t think he has any special obligation to play the quota game to have so many blacks and so many whites.”
It’s a potentially dicey decision. Obama campaigned around the notion that old divisions should be consigned to the past, a belief his election underscores. But he also won with overwhelming support from black Americans and is the very embodiment of the hopes and dreams of that community. To surround himself with a mostly white coterie of top advisers could turn off African-Americans.
To be sure, Obama’s instincts clearly seem to be inclusive — and given his background, how could they not be? To see Obama’s transition team and the group of economic advisers that stood behind him at his first news conference Friday in Chicago, it seems likely that a man of Kansas, Kenya, Hawaii, Indonesia and Chicago will appoint a team that reflects the diversity of his own extended family and unique life.
Not surprisingly, though, there is some disagreement in the black political community as to exactly what steps Obama should take and just how important it is to present a racially diverse administration to the country.
“It’s less of a demand because of the history that he’s making in that office personally,” said Mike Espy, a moderate who was the first black congressman in Mississippi in over a century and served as agriculture secretary under Clinton. “I believe that he should place a premium on qualification. Just bring in the best people.”
Taking over with extraordinary challenges at home and abroad, Obama will need all the political capital he can accrue, Espy said, and that means shoring up his flank.
“If you’re going to do diversity, put some significance on party diversity,” Espy said, noting that the new president could keep Defense Secretary Robert Gates at the Pentagon or tap Colin Powell for a high-ranking post and help himself with those Americans whose votes he didn’t receive.
Transition chief John Podesta said Tuesday that Obama would look hard at making non-Democratic appointments. Obama will make more than “token-level” appointments of Republicans and independents, Podesta said.
But Lani Guinier, the first black woman to ever became a tenured professor at Harvard Law School, argued that diversity is essential.
“If President-elect Obama intends to govern, as I’m sure he does, in a way that is innovative and focused on solving problems, he knows he needs a diverse group of people advising him,” Guinier said. “Diversity is in many ways an answer to the problems the country confronts.”
But Guinier, whose own views on racial preferences wound up torpedoing her appointment to head the civil rights division of Clinton’s Justice Department, said that racial diversity alone is insufficient.
“You want people who are going to bring different sets of talents to a group,” she said. “It’s not about bean-counting. You don’t simply want people representative of a group to be mannequins in the display window.”
What is seemingly less critical now is to have African-American voices able to speak to that community and offer insights as to how certain proposals may go over with such a key constituency. Not only is Obama himself black, but he has also represented a largely black city in the state Senate and a held a U.S. Senate seat from a state where political success is in large part dependent on that same city.
Roger Wilkins served in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, working in LBJ’s Justice Department as a liaison to the black communities in the mid-’60s when rioting occurred.
“There was a dearth of information,” Wilkins recalled, alluding to just how out of touch his overwhelmingly white colleagues were. “My own sense is that my major contribution over those years was to bring the different perspective I had to the table.”
But while Obama may not need much in the way of outside advice to grasp the issues facing black America, there are others who will call for representatives of underrepresented communities.
“The way the Latino population is growing and the immigration issue is becoming, you’d be nuts not to have Hispanics in the Cabinet to express their views,” Wilkins said, noting that Native Americans should be afforded similar opportunities about their unique challenges and opportunities.
Still, Wilkins said Obama’s most pressing imperative was to find the best and the brightest.
“The issue fundamentally is to have Cabinet officers who are smart. This is a very, very difficult world, and he needs the ablest people he can get to help him figure out how he can get us through all these messes.”
Donna Brazile, who became the first African-American to manage a presidential campaign when she ran Al Gore’s 2000 bid, agreed, noting that the times demand top talent.
“The important thing is that President-elect Obama selects the very best people to help his administration with the multitude of challenges we face,” Brazile said. “Some people will look to see if the new Cabinet looks like America in terms of diversity, but as strongly as I personally believe in diversity, I must also state for the record: Good appointments speak for itself.”
Rodney Slater, secretary of transportation under Clinton, said that the historic appointments made by his former boss and his successor had paved the way for Obama. In addition to making many white Americans more comfortable in voting for a black man to be commander in chief, the minorities tapped by the past two presidents created a pool of talent that ensured Obama could pick his Cabinet based on the merits but not forfeit full representation in the process, Slater said.
“He should pick the best and brightest the nation has to offer, but that is now going to manifest itself with a Cabinet that is very much diverse.”
Asked if Obama needed to pick some high-ranking white figures to reassure the many white voters who opposed him, Slater laughed and offered: “You mean like Joe the Plumber?”
Diversity, Slater emphasized, is more complicated than just the traditional racial and cultural blocs.
For example, he noted that Obama had shrewdly picked Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm to stand at his side at last week’s news conference. Yes, she’s a white woman — but she also represents the country’s hard-hit automaking state.
“That’s him saying that 'this manufacturing economy is important to me,'” Slater observed.