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John Dickerson: Obama asked for grousing about staff picks

  • Slate
  • Published Monday, Jan. 14, 2013, at 2:51 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, Jan. 14, 2013, at 2:52 p.m.

President Obama is in a flap. His administration, like the movie “The Hobbit,” doesn’t have enough women in key roles.

The past several White House staff announcements have featured the following people: John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, John Brennan and Jack Lew. All white dudes.

The New York Times energized elite conversation on this topic with a photograph on the front page last week. In it Obama is addressing a semicircle of 10 male aides and Cabinet officials. They are arrayed in precise formation, as if to block out senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, who is barely visible in the picture.

The president’s men are irritated by this criticism. The focus on this momentary snapshot, they argue, ignores the more complete picture.

If that is so, they have only themselves to blame.

During the campaign, the president and his allies took every opportunity to pander to women voters, and never let a moment pass – whatever the pretext – to draw broad conclusions about Mitt Romney’s lack of concern for women.

Since re-election, the Obama administration has not shrunk from playing the gender card. White House officials repeatedly asserted that U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice’s critics were only beating up on her for the Benghazi controversy – and not the president or the CIA director – because she was a woman.

If people are now drawing grand conclusions based on a few staff picks, it’s because the Obama team helped train them to do so.

But let’s not go overboard. The power of symbolism needs to be balanced against the practical effect of that symbolism. To put it into perspective, let’s imagine John McCain had won in 2008. We would have gotten to know Vice President Sarah Palin. And the policies she supported would have been far different for women from those supported by Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, who drafted, for example, the Violence Against Women Act.

It’s a bit too neat to correlate women in power with policies good for the broad swath of women.

Also, Jarrett is the president’s most powerful adviser. Who are the two administration officials you have heard the most about in the past few months? Hillary Clinton and Rice.

There also are Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, outgoing Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and outgoing EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. The president’s top lawyer and top domestic policy advisers are also women. Obama named two women to the U.S. Supreme Court, one of whom was his former solicitor general in the Justice Department. The Supreme Court arguably plays a more lasting role in determining gender and ethnic fairness in American society than any Cabinet post.

The Obama staff directory is a binder full of women. The White House itself employs more women than men. As the New York Times notes, about 43 percent of Obama’s appointees have been women, about the same proportion as in the Clinton administration, but up from the roughly one-third appointed by George W. Bush.

In the end, the only thing that has really changed so far from Obama’s first term is that the president intends to replace Hillary Clinton with a man. There are more Cabinet picks to come, which conceivably could increase the percentage of women in the final tally. Then we’ll see if the second Obama administration is as bad for women as Middle-earth.

John Dickerson is Slate’s chief political correspondent.

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