Obama’s record on appointing women is much worse than Clinton’s

August 26, 2013

Annie Lowrey* writes that "the [Obama] administration has named no more women to high-level executive branch posts than the Clinton administration did almost two decades ago." Here's the graph:

 

So Obama's record is slightly worse than Clinton's.

This is more embarrassing in context. When the Clinton administration promised a cabinet that "looked like America," it had a tough job in front of it. When Bill Clinton took office, no White House had ever given more than 18 percent of cabinet-level positions to women. Women were also far less likely to serve as members of Congress or governors than they are today. That meant the Clinton administration's search for qualified female candidates was harder. But administration officials found them.

The Obama administration's job is easier. The Clinton administration's success appointing more women to cabinet-level (and sub-cabinet level) positions should've made it easier for the Obama administration to build on their numbers. The success women have had getting elected to Congress and to governorships should've further helped matters. And, by and large, it did.

When the Obama administration went looking for a new Secretary of Defense, Under Secretary Michelle Flournoy, who got her start in Clinton's Pentagon, was right there. When they went looking for a new Treasury Secretary, Under Secretary Lael Brainard, another Clinton vet, was an obvious choice. Now that they're looking for a Fed chair, Vice Chair Janet Yellen seems like the obvious choice. Anyone want to guess where Yellen got her start?

The reason the Obama administration's record appointing women is worse than the Clinton administration's record is that the Obama administration keeps choosing not to appoint qualified women. Administration officials passed over Flournoy for ex-Sen. Chuck Hagel. They passed over Brainard for Jack Lew. They passed over acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank -- yes, she served under Clinton, too -- for CEA chair. It looks likely that they'll pass over Yellen for Larry Summers.

(It's worth noting that this isn't the case when it comes to judicial appointments, where Obama has named more women to the federal bench than Clinton did, including two women to the Supreme Court.)

The argument from inside the Obama administration is that they simply choose the best person for the job. But there's no scientific test for "best person for the job." These are close calls -- and, in many cases, strange ones. Flournoy would've made much more sense as Defense Secretary. Brainard had far more experience at Treasury than Lew. Yellen has much broader support for the Fed job than Summers.

Moreover, these are all people the Obama administration chose to entrust with enormous responsibility by giving them the number-two positions at their various agencies, and all of them receive high marks for their performance. They just keep getting passed over for the top job (though obviously the final decision hasn't been made with Yellen).

“The president’s commitment to diversity is second to none, and his track record speaks to it,” said Alyssa Mastromonaco, Obama's deputy chief of staff. But that's not true. When it comes to gender diversity, at least, it's second to Clinton's -- and a distant second, at that.

*Full disclosure: Lowrey and I are married. 

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Brad Plumer · August 26, 2013