It might not be the comparable to the Grammys or Oscars, but the annual State of the Union address has some red carpet flair to it. The power players of American politics gather, and the president and his top secretaries are some of the last to walk into the room. Congressmen and senators line the aisle vying for their attention.
But look closely tonight. There will be something different this year about President Obama’s final cohort: no Hillary Clinton and, frankly, few senior women at all.
Team Obama 2.0 is shaping up to be whiter and more masculine, especially in the marquee posts: John Kerry as Secretary of State, Chuck Hagel as defense secretary, Jack Lew at treasury and John Brennan as CIA director. Add to that list Denis McDonough as the new White House chief of staff.
Don’t get me wrong: each of these men has solid credentials, and there’s no doubt Obama wants the best people for the job. But someone has to say it: it’s hard to believe that in a nation of 313m people, there aren’t a few women or minorities who are also qualified for these jobs.
I keep thinking about that fateful night when Osama bin Laden was killed. The photo that ran in countless media outlets was of President Obama’s “situation room” with his top advisers. It was an all-male crowd around the table, except for Secretary Clinton. The only other woman in the photo is standing in the background and was dubbed the “mystery woman” when the image came out.
If that photo were taken today, would there be any women in it?
It’s especially hard to adjust to this new cabinet after having had Hillary Clinton in the limelight in recent years. She is an inspiration to many American women (and females overseas), and she unabashedly promoted the rights of women and girls at home and abroad. People are rightly asking: who will pick up that mantle?
Thus far, the president has nominated two women for his second term: Sally Jewell as interior secretary and Mary Jo White as head of the Securities and Exchange Commission (which is not a cabinet position). To be fair, there are also some women who appear to be staying on from the first term, such as Health and Human Services head Kathleen Sebelius.
But these posts, while important, are not the face of America to the world. The treasury, defense and state secretaries meet with their foreign counterparts routinely. They represent America abroad. It seems odd that the first African-American president wouldn’t strive to promote a more diverse image of the US.
Even President George W Bush had Colin Powell and Condeleezza Rice serve as his secretaries of State. Powell and Rice broke ground as the first African Americans to hold the post.
And who can forget the “binders full of women” gaffe made by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in the second debate last year? Romney was berated and mocked for his comment, but what he was trying to say was that he had had to make an extra effort to seek out women for top posts when he was governor of Massachusetts.
A few months later, you have to wonder if someone needs to hand President Obama a few “binders full of women”.
I attended the president’s recent inauguration. As I gazed around the crowd on the Capitol mall, it was noticely diverse by gender, race and age. That’s the base that elected the president – but it’s not reflected in his cabinet.
There are still more appointments to come. The rumor mill suggests more women will be nominated, but the highest profile post might be secretary of the Environmental Protection Agency.
And that’s to say nothing of the fact that the two Latinos on the cabinet, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, have stepped down, and that the only African-American on the true cabinet is Attorney General Eric Holder. Furthermore, no one who is openly gay or lesbian has ever been a cabinet secretary.
This second term should be the president’s moment to showcase other talented, and perhaps overlooked, minorities and women in American politics. Instead, he has gone with relatively safe choices or ones that are “political paybacks”.
If a Republican president did this, he would be lambasted for creating an “old boys club” in the Oval Office. With all due respect to America’s first black president, he should be called out for his surprisingly white boys club, too.