President Obama’s Cabinet transition is picking up speed, but even with Monday’s announcements, it’s off to a curiously slow start.
Things should be easier in a second term, for obvious reasons: The president and his team have done this before, and there’s no reason to install an entire Cabinet right away.
But even President Bill Clinton, who had a truly chaotic first-term transition, managed in his second term to announce his picks for new secretaries of state (Madeleine Albright) and defense (William Cohen) a month after the election.
The remaining occupants of the top four Cabinet positions, Attorney General Janet Reno and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, stayed on — Reno to the end of the administration and Rubin for about a year.
President George W. Bush, who had an extraordinarily efficient first transition, announced a new attorney general (Alberto Gonzales) within a week of his reelection and his new secretary of state (Condoleezza Rice) on Nov. 16. (He called Rice right after the election, which would indicate he’d been doing some transition thinking for a while.)
Treasury Secretary John Snow stayed on for about 18 months, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was fired two years in.
There was chatter that the anticipated departure of Obama’s energy secretary, Steven Chu, might be announced as early as this week. The top candidate for that job, we’re hearing, is Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who has substantial expertise in nuclear weapons and related matters — a key part of the Energy Department portfolio.
The White House’s choices of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) for secretary of state, former senator Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) for defense secretary and John Brennan for CIA chief mean the number of top jobs that could be filled by women or minorities is dwindling. That’s causing some concern among those who had hoped to see diversity in the Cabinet remain at its historic levels or even increase.
“It’s evident that he’s going to have a less-diverse Cabinet this term, possibly even less diverse than the George W. Bush Cabinet,” said Paul Light of New York University, who studies political appointments.
The replacement of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton not with U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice (a black woman and Obama’s first choice) but with Kerry, and the possible replacement of Energy Secretary Chu with a white man, the Pentagon’s Ashton Carter, would mean a net loss of minorities and women.
And don’t look for a gain in diversity at Treasury. As Secretary Tim Geithner plans his departure, the name most often heard as his replacement is Jack Lew, Obama’s chief of staff (and, yes, another white guy).
Still, other top positions could be filled by minorities or women. The replacement for Lisa Jackson, the first black woman to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, may very well be a woman.
Outgoing Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) is said to be emerging as the front-runner for the EPA job. And among the names floated for the now-vacant post of commerce secretary is Xerox chief Ursula Burns, a black woman.
“I’m disappointed so far,” said Terry O’Neill, head of the National Organization for Women. O’Neill said one of the reasons female voters supported Obama’s reelection was that they perceived that he was comfortable “putting women in positions of trust.”
Light notes that Obama may be missing out on a chance to make a dramatic statement by nominating women for positions previously held only by men. “Nominating a woman to lead Defense would have been a big, big splash and a change in the culture there,” he said. “A woman at Treasury would be big.”
And it’s not just a matter of gender and race or ethnicity: Gay groups are holding out hope that the second-term Cabinet will include at least one openly gay secretary, though the first round of appointments isn’t likely to include such a candidate.
Of course, the picture could still change. The game of musical chairs is barely underway.
The news media in general — and State Department reporters in particular — have been much criticized by certain government officials for spending too much time asking about the secretary of state’s hairdo.
Sometimes, however, State Department officials bring up the matter before the press does.
Take Monday’s briefing with reporters shortly after department officials presented Secretary Clinton, back on the job after her recent health problems, with a jersey and a State Department helmet.
“Did she put on the helmet?” one reporter asked, recalling the disastrous 1988 campaign photo of Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis looking ridiculous in a helmet as he was riding in a tank.
“She — as you’ll see in the photo,” department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, “she’s holding it up, both the helmet and then later the jersey.”
“Yeah, but she didn’t put it on?” the reporter persisted.
“Let me just say as a fellow chick, her hair looked fabulous this morning,” Nuland said. “I’m not sure I would have challenged my hair with the helmet either.”
With Emily Heil