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Fussing Over the Distaff Staff
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Washington’s latest kerfuffle, at a time when political kerfuffling is epidemic, concerns the number of women in President Obama’s inner circle. Some say there are too few.
A clutch of pundits and editorial writers fears that the latest selections – Chuck Hagel, John Kerry and Jack Lew – reflect a male bias in the Obama Administration. “President Obama ran promoting women’s issues,” notes Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, and so she now asks, “How about promoting some women?”
The criticism is not only baseless in terms of the president’s record; it suggests a ridiculous quid pro quo, as if women cast votes in exchange for political appointments. Women supported the president for myriad social and economic reasons, as reflected in polls, but nowhere in the data is there evidence that female voters were motivated by hopes of gaining more spots in the Cabinet.
Only Bill Clinton placed as many women in Cabinet-level positions as President Obama has, nine, and in Clinton’s case the mark was set during his second term. In the nation’s history, only 43 women have held such posts, and Obama appointed 21 percent of them during his first term.
But as compelling as the numbers are, this isn’t about numbers, nor should it be. At the very time that President Clinton was appointing a record number of women to high-level posts, he, too, was criticized. Clinton’s reply was short and direct: “I don’t believe in quotas.”
Clinton might have added, parenthetically, “ the nation’s highest and most vital positions.” There is a good case to be made for affirmative-action style hiring in the lower ranks. Only by placing women and minorities in these positions will there ever be enough qualified candidates for the bigger jobs. That’s why, within the entire Obama Administration, the male-female split is about 50-50.
But when it comes to top Cabinet positions and the Supreme Court – where Obama’s two appointments were women – there is no acceptable standard except finding the best person for the job.
Hillary Clinton is vacating one of the most powerful posts in government, Secretary of State, and Obama’s first choice to replace her was U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice. Rice became tangled, unfairly, in the Benghazi affair and Obama shifted to Sen. John Kerry. But other than Rice, few critics have suggested the names of any appropriately qualified women for State – or for that matter, Defense or Treasury.
Kerry and Hagel, both Vietnam vets with Senate experience, are superbly suited for State and Defense. Lew, who has headed the Office of Management and Budget, is on the shortest of lists of Americans qualified to be Treasury Secretary. It is a list that, at the moment, simply has no women.
The New York Times fueled the diversity controversy by running a White House photo on its front page, showing Obama in an Oval Office meeting attended by 10 males and a lone female, key adviser Valerie Jarrett, who was largely hidden from view. But hours later the White House released a photo of another meeting in which most of the staffers were women.
So the focus shifts to what critics like to call “optics.” It doesn’t look good, they argue, to see a photo of the president surrounded by white males; it sends a bad message.
But facts carry more weight than optics. “The person who probably had the most influence on my foreign policy was a woman,” the president reminded reporters, in summing up his first term. “The people who were in charge of moving forward my most important domestic initiative, health care, were women. The person in charge of our Homeland Security was a woman. My two appointments to the Supreme Court were women. And 50 percent of my White House staff were women.”
Women have equal opportunity in the Obama Administration. It’s counterproductive to fuss over optics.
Peter Funt is a writer and speaker and can be reached at