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The Cabinet: Who's Next?

By Al Kamen
Tuesday, December 16, 2008

With five days to go before President-elect Barack Obama jets to Hawaii for his Christmas vacation, just a handful of his Cabinet-level posts remain open. Based on the race so far, here's how the slate looks as Obama tries to assemble a diverse administration of nominees from various political constituencies.

Obama has tapped three African Americans, two Asian Americans and one Latino, and look for the president-elect to pick a Latino for at least one of the remaining posts. His transition team has assured the politically powerful community that he will have at least two Latinos in the Cabinet, but thus far he has named just one: New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, for commerce secretary.

Men outnumber women in the Cabinet by more than 2 to 1, so count on Obama to tap more women to accompany the four already nominated: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton for secretary of state, Susan E. Rice for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano for secretary of homeland security and New Jersey official Lisa P. Jackson for administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Obama's Cabinet is heavily weighted with East Coasters, with half of his nominees hailing from Washington, New York or New Jersey. He has two nominees from the Midwest and four from the West Coast, but no nominee from the South. Sure, there aren't many Democrats left down South, but Obama probably wouldn't want to become the first president in generations to snub Southerners.

Obama will have an unusually young Cabinet, with six of his nominees in their 30s and 40s. The youngest member, Peter Orszag, who will be director of the Office of Management and Budget, is 39. He will be joined in the kids' club by Shaun Donovan, 42, at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Rice, 44. The two elder statesmen both have military experience: Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, 66, who will be secretary of veterans affairs, and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, 65.

Obama has nominated two governors and two members of Congress and reached into the world of academia in naming Steven Chu as energy secretary, whom the president-elect said yesterday was at the "cutting edge" of technology.

During the campaign, Obama waxed poetic about bringing Republicans into his administration. But Gates -- the lone holdover from the Bush administration -- is the only representative of the GOP in the new Cabinet. It wouldn't surprise us to see Obama fill one more post with a Republican. Unless business as usual has trumped change we can use.

Plans Change . . .

Speaking of appointments, Latino activists were sounding alarms anew last week as a couple of prominent Cabinet possibilities fell off the front burner. Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), who had been talked about as a leading contender for U.S. trade representative -- he met recently with Obama to talk about the job -- may no longer be in the mix, having opted to stay in the House, we're told.

Monica C. Lozano -- Los Angeles businesswoman, major political player and publisher of La Opinion, the largest Spanish-language paper in the country -- had been seen as a possibility for the Small Business Administration, not quite a Cabinet job but kind of. That doesn't appear to be happening, either. There's talk that Annette Taddeo, a Colombian-born business executive who lost last month to Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), may be in the mix for the SBA.

So that left only Richardson, plus a handful of Latinos on the White House staff, even including Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion Jr., who is on tap to head the new White House office of urban affairs.

Given the importance of the Latino vote these days -- 29 electoral votes in the Southwest, of which 19 went to Obama, plus 27 in Florida -- the Obama transition has been most sensitive to that influential bloc. Transition chief John D. Podesta met with a group of Hispanic leaders earlier this month to discuss appointments with them.

But after yesterday's announcements, the field is growing even smaller. (Smaller still, once Chicago public schools chief Arne Duncan is named secretary of education today.) That may be why they're looking to see if a Latino can be found to chair or co-chair the Democratic National Committee. Relations may improve on the Latino front when Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) is announced as secretary of the interior later this week.

The Interior Department slot had been difficult to fill, with various contenders popping up and then going down in the last month. The leading contenders last week were Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-N.M.) and Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.). But hunters and fishermen thought Grijalva too green. Enviros, however, thought Thompson too close to hunters and fishermen and maybe too close to Madam Speaker Nancy Pelosi, especially geographically.

So, rather than offend, Obama is calling on Salazar -- though some enviros are unhappy with his support for some oil shale drilling. Hill folks said they were stunned that Salazar would give up a Senate seat -- especially a seat the Democrats could easily lose in 2006. But he came into the Senate and sits there right by -- you guessed it -- Barack Obama.

Salazar's office says his plans for this week are to remain in Colorado. Plans change.

Stealing Obama's Thunder

We were waiting by the television yesterday for Obama to tell us who the next secretary of energy was going to be. But more than an hour before Obama took the stage, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory broke the news about their director: "President-Elect Barack Obama has nominated Steve Chu . . . to be Secretary of Energy."

Holding Up Holder Talks

Seems Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) has prevailed. The Senate Judiciary Committee announced yesterday that it is delaying the confirmation hearing for Obama's nominee for attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., by about a week, scheduling it for Jan. 15 and giving Specter and other Republicans more time to parse Holder's record. (And for Specter to recover from his arduous trip to Europe and the Mideast.)

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the committee's chairman, said in a statement that the delay is to "accommodate the Republicans" and added: "It is disappointing to me that they are insisting that we delay at a time when the nation needs its top law enforcement officer and national security team in place and working."

Holder's confirmation hearing should be a relative blockbuster, what with his role in President Bill Clinton's 2001 pardon of financier Marc Rich.

(Pardon the Interruptions)

The official White House transcript of the shoe-throwing incident during President Bush's news conference Sunday in Baghdad simply calls it "(Audience interruption.)" Though Bush joked about it.

And in his news conference in Kabul with President Hamid Karzai, the press pool report said that Bush faced a pointed question from a reporter who said his comments about Afghanistan were a lie and that the Taliban "were laughing across the border" in Pakistan.

This, too, was "(Not translated)" on the White House transcript.

Yet Bush's answer was faithfully recorded: "I respectfully disagree with you. The Taliban was brutalizing the people of Afghanistan. And they're not in power. And I just cited the progress that is undeniable."

Maybe he speaks Pashtun or Urdu?

With Philip Rucker

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