By Nick DAngelo
No one can question the commitment of the Obama administration to women’s issues, but the President’s second term will be the first since 1993 without a woman as part of the top West Wing staff or as a top tier Cabinet secretary. That is, assuming his two choice nominees to lead the State and Defense departments are confirmed by the Senate. Of course, no one is keeping score in the game of female advancement (Does President Obama receive extra points for appointing two female Supreme Court justices?), but it is an interesting historical context.
In 1993, when President George H.W. Bush left office, the highest-ranking female in government was Lynn Morley Martin, a long-time Illinois congresswoman, tapped to replace another GOP woman icon, Elizabeth Dole, as Secretary of Labor. Two decades later, the highest-ranking female will once again be the Labor Secretary.
The question should now be, why did President Obama choose two old white men to serve as the leaders of his national security team—while passing on two female runners-up? No one should dispute the reasoning that the best candidate, regardless of gender, race or religion, should be chosen for the job. Four years after the historic Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which stressed “equal pay for equal work,” we are still confronted with the dilemma between best qualifications and fairness.
A woman has headed the State Department since 2005, with Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton responsible for the administration of two wars and countless gritty international crises. In 2009, Obama seemed to be creating a “team of rivals” in selecting Clinton as his secretary of state. Her celebrity and respect on the international stage, as well as her countless personal relationships with foreign dignitaries, made her a strong choice. Back then she beat out another worthy candidate who hardly hid his desire for the appointment, Senator John Kerry.
A loyal party elder, Kerry quietly acquiesced and has since sat atop his perch on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. This time around, Kerry once again was not the president’s first choice. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice was widely seen as Obama’s preferred successor to Clinton. But Rice withdrew her nomination on Dec. 13 after conciliatory meetings with Republican Senate leaders made her prospects even worse. By that point, the ambassador had become the face of the administration’s mishandling of the Benghazi debacle, repeatedly insisting the violent deaths of American diplomats in Libya were prompted by a spontaneous protest, not terrorism. With Rice out, her chances at Senate confirmation were an uphill climb at best, and the president turned to Kerry. A pick that received little objection, he is expected to be quickly confirmed after his Senate hearings, which begin today.
The Defense pick is less straightforward. It was widely speculated that the president’s top two choices were former-Senator Chuck Hagel and Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy.
One was an unpopular legislator, known for angst with both sides of the aisle. The other, a well-respected Oxford educated security expert, familiar with the bureaucracy of the department and the policy points of the administration. Which would you choose?
For reasons known only to the president and his most intimate advisors, he selected the former, setting off a barrage of criticism from both parties. Some have even speculated that the pick was blatantly political—either sneering at Republicans by selecting one of their exiles, or attempting to bridge a partisan divide by appointing a GOP senator. When Hagel takes the stand on Jan. 31, opposite the very colleagues he served with for over a decade, look for a reemergence of some hurt feelings and old memories.
Conservative columnist George Will writes that presidents are due their cabinet choices. After all, they are his top advisors and last, at most, his tenure in office. But that does not stop curious onlookers from questioning the selections and often asking the so dangerous question “what if?”