Cabinet Diversity Poses a Question for Obama
By Michael D. Shear
It has been 15 years since a white man served as secretary of state or secretary of labor.
Yet no woman or minority member has ever led the Pentagon, the Central Intelligence Agency or the Treasury Department. The White House chief of staff has also always been a white man.
As President Obama ponders how to shuffle his cabinet for a second term, he faces decisions that could continue these patterns — in which some cabinet jobs remain the domain of white men, while others endure as bastions of diversity — or that could break them.
Attention so far has focused on the possibility that Susan E. Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations, would become secretary of state, succeeding Hillary Rodham Clinton. Mrs. Clinton followed Condoleezza Rice, Colin L. Powell and Madeleine K. Albright, with Warren Christopher, who stepped down in 1997, being the last white man to serve as America’s top diplomat.
President Bill Clinton’s nomination of Ms. Albright in 1997 broke the mold of what an American secretary of state should look like. And it established a pattern that succeeding presidents have been eager to follow.
Fred I. Greenstein, an emeritus professor of politics at Princeton University, offered the academic theory of “path dependence” as one possible explanation. The theory argues that earlier decisions by leaders often guide the decisions of their successors, he said.
“You get in a kind of rhythm of doing the same thing,” Mr. Greenstein said.
That theory might also help explain the tendency for presidents to nominate women as labor secretary. In the last 25 years, one man and six women have occupied that post. Hilda L. Solis, a former congresswoman from California, is the current labor secretary.
(The first woman to serve in a president’s cabinet was Frances Perkins, the labor secretary for 12 years under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Ms. Perkins was followed by 14 consecutive men; only one man, Robert B. Reich, has held the post since 1987.)
The theory of path dependence could also be why some cabinet jobs have continued to draw from a smaller demographic pool.
The most frequently mentioned candidate to follow Timothy F. Geithner as treasury secretary is Jacob J. Lew, the White House chief of staff. Were Mr. Lew to move across the street, the possibilities to succeed him include Denis R. McDonough, the deputy national security adviser, and Ronald A. Klain, a former chief of staff to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
But Mr. Obama also has options for the Treasury and Defense Departments, the C.I.A. and the chief of staff that would break with precedent.
He is reportedly considering Michèle A. Flournoy to take over at the Pentagon after serving as the under secretary for defense. Lael Brainard, the Treasury under secretary for international affairs, is considered a contender to become secretary, although that is considered more likely later on in Mr. Obama’s second term.
The president could tap Nancy-Ann Deparle, his deputy chief of staff, to be the chief of staff. And if Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. leaves this year, Mr. Obama might shift Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security, to the Justice Department, which would make her the country’s second female attorney general after Janet Reno.
Also on the list of possible successors for Mr. Holder: Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan, who would be the cabinet’s first Indian-American, and Deval Patrick, the governor of Massachusetts. Mr. Patrick dined with Mr. Obama right after the election, though he has said that “under no circumstances” would he take an administration job.
“It’s certainly a concern,” Marcia Greenberger, the co-president of the National Women’s Law Center, said of the lack of diversity in some cabinet jobs. “It is important that minorities and women just become natural candidates for these positions.”
The rest of the cabinet has a more diverse history, though white men dominated for decades. Women and minority members have led the Departments of Health and Human Services, Agriculture, Transportation, Energy and Education. They have also served as trade representative and administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Norman Y. Mineta, a former congressman from California, became the first Asian-American in the cabinet in 2000 when Mr. Clinton appointed him commerce secretary. Lauro F. Cavazos, a former education secretary, became the first Hispanic American cabinet member in 1988.
Mr. Obama might also make history by nominating the first openly gay cabinet member. John Berry, the director of the president’s Office of Personnel Management, is said to be a candidate for interior secretary when Ken Salazar departs. And Fred P. Hochberg, the chairman and president of the Export-Import Bank, could get the nod as commerce secretary.
If Mr. Obama does break the pattern with one of these positions, he could end up changing the way future presidents look at candidates to lead those agencies.
It was not that long ago that secretary of state seemed an unlikely symbol of workplace diversity.