Obama’s Cabinet Diversity (Or Lack Thereof)

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This is one of my more opinionated pieces, so brace yourself for that.

President Obama picked a Commerce Secretary this week, finishing out the process of selecting his second-term cabinet. And while he tapped Penny Pritzker for the decision, the end of this selection process prompted more commentary on the fact that this second-term cabinet is significantly less diverse, both in terms of ethnicity and gender, than his first term cabinet.

And of course, that prompted the usual flood of comments from readers saying things along the line of “I don’t care what someone looks like, just as long as they’re the best person for the job!” Problematic grammar aside, that argument is, frankly, pretty ignorant and privileged, for a couple of reasons.

The first is that, if you trust that Obama’s selections of almost entirely white men are indeed the best people for the cabinet positions they fill, you are buying into the idea that white men are just better at some things, such as defense policy or fiscal policy, than anyone else.

The argument to that statement will, of course, be that we just had a female Secretary of State (although State is the only top cabinet position that has ever had any female secretaries. State, Defense, and Treasury are typically considered the most high profile, and arguably most important, cabinet positions.) And we’ve had a black Secretary of State as well. (State seems to be the diversity post.) So obviously it is just at this present time that white men happen to be the most capable people available for State, Defense, and Treasury (and most of the rest of the cabinet.)

Right. And for the vast majority of the past 44 administrations. Does it really seem right that there are almost always white men who are “best” for the job and only once in a blue moon a woman and/or ethnic minority who is?

My second objection to the “Oh, I’m color/gender blind, just give me the best person for the job” argument is this: in a normal job hunt, you assume there are multiple people who could fill the role you are seeking, and actually getting the job is a mix of not only your own qualifications and preparations, but also of luck and sometimes the right connections. So why do we think the process of filling out a cabinet is a complete meritocracy, and not also based on networking?

Furthermore, it is ridiculous to say that there is only one “best” person for any job. Is there really no one in the Defense Department or either house of Congress with equal experience and expertise to Chuck Hagel?

There’s a reason there’s always a shortlist of possible candidates for a cabinet position before the president announces his nominee: because there are multiple people with the ability to fill each position. For instance, this year, the other top contender with Chuck Hagel was Michele Flournoy, the former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy. She was the highest-ranking woman at the Pentagon, she’s affiliated with a number of highly regarded think tanks and policy organizations, including the Council on Foreign Relations, and a graduate of Harvard and Oxford, among other qualifications. She’s worked in counterproliferation, overseen multiple policy offices within the DoD, and received 2 DoD awards for public service and an award from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for distinguished civilian service.

Seems legit.

But Obama went with Chuck Hagel, for what I think is the final reason that the aforementioned “just choose the best person” argument is bunk: because he probably thought Hagel would get approved more easily.

This is partly because Hagel is a Republican, so there was the hope that he would be seen as a sort of compromise pick, an olive branch to the Republican party. But there is also the more insidious possibility that Flournoy would be opposed because Congress, and a large portion of the American people, wouldn’t trust a woman in charge of the military.

Just because someone is more politically expedient does not mean they are more capable. Just like having connections doesn’t make someone better qualified. White men dominate our governing institutions, but that doesn’t necessarily prove their merit. After all, we haven’t exactly had a lot to compare them to.

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