Minority Advocates Watching Obama

President-elect Barack Obama has signaled that he will make a number of historic appointments. Valerie Jarrett, for example, will be senior adviser and assistant to the president for intergovernmental relations and public liaison.
President-elect Barack Obama has signaled that he will make a number of historic appointments. Valerie Jarrett, for example, will be senior adviser and assistant to the president for intergovernmental relations and public liaison. (By Charles Dharapak -- Associated Press)
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By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 29, 2008

Barack Obama's friend and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett likens the effort of piecing together a Cabinet for the president-elect to assembling a puzzle. The co-chair of his transition, John D. Podesta, promised that his team will "keep our eye on the ball" as it attempts to balance racial diversity, gender and ideology in building a White House operation and stocking the Cabinet.

The president-elect has already signaled that he will make a number of historic appointments. Obama is poised to nominate the first black attorney general and one of the nation's highest-profile women as its chief diplomat. A Hispanic governor is the leading candidate to become commerce secretary.

But as Jarrett recognized early, every appointment he makes to the 15-member Cabinet reduces by one the opportunities he has to make sure another group is represented. It is a zero-sum game that leaves presidents with little wiggle room.

"There are huge expectations on him because he's the first black president, the first civil rights lawyer, the first president with an Arab middle name," said Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP.

"In other words," Jealous said, Obama is "the first president to have been the victim of multiple forms of discrimination and the first to have made fighting discrimination a part of his career."

The NAACP and other groups are watching Obama's appointments closely, an example of the scrutiny under which the new president is already operating. Jealous said his group wants Obama to appoint leaders at the departments of Justice, Labor, Education and Health and Human Services who will actively enforce the nation's civil rights laws.

"Many of the names that we have heard floated for deputy attorney general for civil rights and the Department of Education make us feel good that he's taking his responsibility seriously to restore the federal government's role in enforcing civil rights," Jealous said this week. "So far, so good."

But most of Obama's Cabinet picks are still up in the air, leaving interest groups and activists crossing their fingers.

Obama is said to be considering former representatives David E. Bonior (D-Mich.) and Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and at least one prominent Hispanic, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, for labor secretary. The education secretary's job could go to either New York public schools chancellor Joel Klein or Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond. Former senator Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) is slated to head the Department of Health and Human Services.

Women's groups are hoping to build on the progress that Obama has already appeared to make, with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) the all-but-certain secretary of state and Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano the nominee for secretary of homeland security.

Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D), an early Obama supporter, is being considered for agriculture. Tammy Duckworth, the Iraq war veteran who lost both legs in that conflict, could be the next secretary of veterans affairs. Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm (D) might end up as the secretary of energy. And several women are potential choices to head up the Environmental Protection Agency.

"Groups that are concerned with racial and gender diversity are certainly wise to keep the pressure on," said Paul C. Light, a professor of public policy at New York University. But he said questions of diversity among Obama's closest confidants should go beyond those characteristics to include their worldview, their educational background, their work history and their ideological allegiances.

On those scores, it is less clear that Obama is building a diverse team. The individuals who are known are experienced politicians who would be familiar to anyone studying administrations of the past. None represents the kind of radical break from the government as usual that some of Obama's supporters expected.

"This is not a team of rivals as much as it is a team of experienced Washington insiders," Light said.

Obama addressed that concern directly at a news conference on Wednesday, defending his decision to tap establishment figures -- especially for his economic team -- by saying that the members of his Cabinet need experience to tackle the big problems facing the nation.

He said people looking for change from his administration should not focus too closely on his Cabinet choices.

"[U]nderstand where the vision for change comes from first and foremost: It comes from me," he told reporters. "That's my job, to provide a vision in terms of where we are going and to make sure that my team is implementing it."

The diversity of that team will be judged first by the composition of his Cabinet and the five sub-Cabinet jobs that are often considered on par: EPA administrator, U.S. trade representative, budget director, chief of staff and drug policy administrator.

Hispanics are hoping to see representation beyond New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), who is the leading candidate to become commerce secretary. In addition to Labor, Villaraigosa is thought to be in the running to lead the department of Housing and Urban Development. Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) is a leading candidate to be secretary of the interior.

But Obama will ultimately be judged by the broader swath of appointments he makes, including his White House staff, the senior-level staff around the secretaries and the other political appointees who fill the agencies.

Already, Obama has made appointments that have been well received by groups that are pushing for diversity. This week, he appointed Cecilia Muñoz as the White House director of intergovernmental affairs. Muñoz is a senior vice president at the National Council of La Raza.

"If you look at the people in the White House, you have a good cross section," said Martha Joynt Kumar, a professor at Towson University who studies White House personnel.

Kumar said she thinks Obama's supporters are likely to be somewhat more forgiving about diversity since he has broken a historic barrier by being black himself. "He meets part of that just by his election," she said.

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