Friday afternoon announcements in Washington are usually aimed at attracting as little attention as possible, but last Friday was different. President Obama’s decision to nominate Eric Fanning — an openly gay man — to head a branch of the military which only four years ago did not allow gays and lesbians to serve openly, was both historic and attention-grabbing.
And it underscored an often-overlooked feature of the Obama presidency: Obama has presided over the most demographically diverse administration in history, according to a new analysis of his top appointments. The majority of top policy appointments within the executive branch are held by women and minorities for the first time in history.
The transformation partly reflects a broader trend in U.S. society, but it also reflects the results of a calculated strategy by the nation’s first African American president. The shifts are significant enough, experts say, that they may have forever transformed the face of government.
With Obama, said Robert Raben, a Democratic consultant and lobbyist who works on diversity issues, “We have now settled the fact that diversity is a permanent part of the federal government.”
University of California at Berkeley law school professor Anne Joseph O’Connell has compiled a database of all government appointees confirmed by the Senate to more than 80 important policy positions between January 1977 and August 2015. O’Connell said that her research reveals that Obama has placed women and minorities in 53.5 percent of those posts. His predecessor, President George W. Bush, by contrast, installed women and minorities in 25.6 percent, while President Clinton’s number was 37.5 percent.
And Fanning’s nomination punctuates the fact that members of the LGBT community have also made similar advances under Obama: There are now hundreds of openly gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender appointees in the executive branch, compared with a handful in past administrations.
In an interview, White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett — who has pushed for the hiring and promotion of people from underrepresented groups — said the president has “made a very deliberate effort to be inclusive in the diversity of his administration at all levels.”
“So yes, African Americans, women, Latinos, Native Americans, people with disabilities, the LGBT community,” she said. “He wanted to make sure that everybody had an opportunity to serve in this administration and that its diversity reflected the diversity of our country.”
The first black president, also a Democrat, may have faced a special burden on the diversity front. O’Connell said that although different constituencies have always pressed to have a place at the highest level of government, Democrat administrations are particularly sensitive to these concerns as they relate to race and gender.
“Democrats in the White House face more pressure on ‘demographic’ staffing because many groups who want to see leaders like them worked hard to elect the president,” she said.
The Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund and Institute’s Denis Dison said that the group had “binders of gays ready to go” when Obama’s transition team started looking for appointees in late 2008.
The “binders” reference is an allusion to 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s response to criticism that he did not hire enough women when he was governor of Massachusetts. During a debate, Romney responded by saying that he had reached out to women’s groups, “and they brought us whole binders full of women.”
Dison said his group had collected more than 3,000 résumés for Obama in an effort to boost the numbers of openly gay and lesbian appointees. There are six openly gay ambassadors; a gay man serving as the first special envoy to promote global LGBT rights; five transgender men and women who have served in federal agencies and, as of this summer, the first full-time transgender employee in the White House. And Fanning, the Army Secretary-designate, is a former Victory Fund and Institute board member.
Previously, just a few presidential appointees were openly gay or lesbian, and none were transgender. Clinton appointed the first openly gay ambassador, James Hormel, in a 1999 recess appointment, and placed lesbian activists Roberta Achtenberg and E. Julian Potter in senior positions at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. George W. Bush had two openly gay AIDS advisers, in succession.
Ted McConnell, a gay Republican who served as a political appointee under Ronald Reagan and on multiple presidential campaigns, said he and others “lived in fear” of having their sexual orientation disclosed. “If you were found out, your career would be over.”
McConnell noted that attitudes toward gays and other minorities had shifted nationwide, not just among the political elite. Six in 10 Americans support same-sex marriage, according to an April Washington Post/ABC poll; last month Gallup released a poll finding a majority of Americans back affirmative action, with 67 percent favoring such programs for women and 58 percent for racial minorities.
Despite the gains that these groups have made under Obama, none of them — except African Americans — are at parity with their numbers in overall American society. Women’s share of the top policy jobs rose from 23.3 percent to 35.3 percent from Clinton’s tenure to Obama’s, while the percentage of Latinos and Asian Americans roughly doubled over that same period, to 8.5 and 4.6 percent, respectively.
The percentage of African Americans in these posts under Obama is 14.4 percent, according to O’Connell’s analysis, just over one percentage point higher than under Clinton.
O’Connell and others said a combination of factors have contributed to why African Americans have not expanded their share of senior policy jobs under this administration. Clinton, the last Democrat in the White House before Obama, made a concerted push to recruit black appointees. And over time, government service has become less attractive to many talented candidates of color, who chose more lucrative opportunities in the private sector.
Donna Brazile, a Democratic consultant who has recommended candidates to the White House, said of the administration: “They’re constantly looking for new people to go in. And not everyone is willing to make that sacrifice.”
The extent to which each president strives to diversify the federal government — or rejects such a goal — has split largely along party lines. Every Democrat since Jimmy Carter has spoken about the need to install more women and minorities in senior posts, while every Republican during that same period has signaled an opposition to quotas.
Although GOP administrations have set precedents of their own — George W. Bush appointed the first black secretary of state, Colin L. Powell, and then selected his national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, who is also African American, to succeed Powell in the second term — they have been less explicit about promoting minority and gender diversity.
“The framework is the president should be trying to get the best people in his administration to serve and to get his agenda done for the American people,” said Clay Johnson III, who served as deputy director of presidential personnel during the start of Bush’s term, in an interview.
Johnson noted that his resistance to outside lobbying earned him the nickname “The Icebox.”
“When it came to applicants, I was huge, white and cold. And I am all three of those things,” he said. “I had one client, and I knew what he wanted.”
The Obama White House, by contrast, has established specific programs to boost diversity among appointees. The Presidential Personnel Office targets historically black colleges and universities, as well as minority-serving institutions, as part of a new campus recruitment program. It has a liaison to identify candidates by working with leaders from underrepresented groups, including those who are LGBT or have disabilities.
Tammy Frisby, a research fellow at the libertarian Hoover Institution, said in an interview that the shift reflects both a broader social change in the country, as well as the fact that hiring is often based on “who do you know.”
“This is the Obama White House doing what white guys have been doing for white guys since the beginning of time,” Frisby said. “They know women and minorities, and they’re finding highly qualified candidates that they know that have not been in these positions before.”
The impact of Obama’s diversity efforts could reverberate for decades in people such as Michael Blake, a son of Jamaican immigrants who was homeless as a child but worked on Obama’s two presidential campaigns and in the White House as associate director of public engagement. Last year, Blake won election to the New York State Assembly, with the help of a lot of other Obama alumni, including Marlon Marshall, who is now Hillary Rodham Clinton’s director of state campaigns and political engagement. Blake’s campaign slogan was about his transformation: “No House to the White House.”
Obama, Blake said, has helped create a new network of people of color now climbing the ranks of government.
“He did that,” Blake said. “He grew that.”