Obama team reaches new heights in diversity

When Bush holdovers are excluded, white men make up just under half of the people filling senior posts in the administration.

A mere glance around Barack Obama's Cabinet table provides ample evidence of the president's philosophy that diversity is an important element of good government. Fewer than half of the 22 officials designated by Obama as having Cabinet rank are white men -- only nine in fact.

Likewise, fewer than half of the key personnel in the Obama White House are white males. (Cynics will correctly note that the most powerful West Wing aides are still mostly white men.) A National Journal survey of 366 of the president's Decision Makers -- people appointed or nominated to senior positions throughout the executive branch -- found that white men hold 52 percent of the jobs. But when 49 holdovers from the Bush era are excluded, white guys make up just under half -- 49 percent -- of the Obama team.

The new look of government is, in part, a generational story. From college campuses to corporate boardrooms to campaigns, society is increasingly tapping the professional talents of women and racial minorities. But the new look also embodies the commitment of the first nonwhite male to hold the nation's highest elective office.

"It reflects both the changing face of the nation and the overall changes in politics, as well as this president's very strong belief that different backgrounds do make for stronger decision-making," said White House Communications Director Anita Dunn, who was a key adviser to Obama's presidential campaign. Princeton University presidential scholar Fred Greenstein said that the Obama administration's diversity "suggests a true changing of the guard."

The impact of Obama's staffing of the government is likely to extend beyond the next four years of this administration. Should Obama seek and win another term, the number of women and minorities poised to assume even more senior positions will only grow.

"There's diversity in this crowd that nobody else has approached before," said Democratic lobbyist Marcia Hale, a veteran of Bill Clinton's White House. "Four and eight years from now, there will be an amazing array of people from different backgrounds," she predicted.

But many of the faces in this Democratic administration are familiar, having served in the executive branch when their party was last in power. Some parts of Obama's "change" administration actually look quite a bit like a restoration of the Clinton era. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel served more than six years in the Clinton White House. And three of the top four Cabinet posts -- secretary of State, Treasury secretary, and attorney general -- are held by people who played influential roles in the Clinton administration. (The fourth -- Defense secretary -- is filled by Robert Gates, a holdover from the administration of George W. Bush.)

More than 40 percent of Obama's early appointments and nominations can claim some link to Bill Clinton, who entered the White House vowing that his administration would "look like America." The extent of the Obama administration's ties to the past is not surprising, given the opportunities that Clinton's two terms gave Democrats to develop their talent pool.

Clinton was much more reluctant to draw on the pool of his most recent Democratic predecessor. "It can be argued that Clinton's mistake was in not reaching back to the Carter administration both for lessons and personnel," Greenstein said. "There was something of a look-back-at-Carter phobia, with the result that rollout of the health program duplicated [Jimmy] Carter's failure on energy."

Part of Obama's reliance on Clintonites might stem from the fact that, unlike Clinton, Obama is not a legendary networker. Clinton populated key positions in his new administration with people he had met during his days at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar; his 12 years as governor of Arkansas; his stint as chairman of the National Governors Association; and his time as head of the Democratic Leadership Council. He also tapped the formidable network that his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, had built as a prominent lawyer and children's advocate.

Unlike Bush, Obama did not have a father who had been president and gave him access to a small army of experienced White House advisers. Vice President Cheney, who headed the Bush transition in 2000, also had his own network for Bush to draw from. Two men whom Cheney had served with when he was Gerald Ford's White House chief of staff -- Paul O'Neill and Donald Rumsfeld -- were plucked for top Cabinet posts, Treasury and Defense, respectively.

Neither Obama nor his vice president, former Sen. Joe Biden, had ever spent much time courting the Washington establishment. During his brief tenure in the Senate, Obama lived in a one-bedroom apartment on Capitol Hill and usually returned home to Chicago on the weekends. Biden -- who has deep ties to fellow senators and knows a multitude of foreign leaders from his many years on the Foreign Relations Committee -- famously took the train home to Wilmington every night. He did not play a high-profile role in the Obama transition.

Before coming to the White House, Obama had served less than four years in the Senate, and two of those were largely consumed by his presidential bid. His adopted hometown of Chicago, where he learned to navigate the tribal politics of the city as an ambitious state legislator, provided a handful of key officials for his administration, including top White House aides such as Emanuel, senior advisers David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. But, overall, only 22 of Obama's Decision Makers worked in Illinois immediately before joining his administration. That puts the Land of Lincoln behind the District of Columbia, Virginia, California, and New York. Only one Obama official came to the administration directly from Hawaii, the state where the president was born and raised.

Likewise, Obama didn't flood the top ranks of the executive branch with veterans of his presidential campaign. To be sure, plenty of his road-tested aides now hold senior positions in his White House, as is usually the case with a new president. But Obama has signed up fewer campaign veterans than his immediate predecessor did. About four-fifths of Bush's White House team had worked in the former Texas governor's 2000 campaign; for Obama, the figure is a little more than two-thirds. The number of campaign types whom Obama has sprinkled throughout the federal bureaucracy is relatively low: only about 25 percent, compared with 34 percent for Bush.

"In the last administration, the hack-to-wonk ratio was dangerously high," said Democratic Leadership Council CEO Bruce Reed, who was a chief domestic policy adviser in the Clinton White House. "In this one, wonks have the upper hand. And Obama has put a big premium on hiring people who know what they're doing."

Lending a best-and-brightest character to his team, more than one-third of Obama's top officials -- 37 percent -- have worked at a think tank or in academia at some point in their careers. Likewise, more than one-third, 37 percent, boast an undergraduate or graduate degree from an Ivy League school. Twelve percent are "double Ivy," holding undergraduate and graduate degrees from elite schools.

Critics say that one area where the Obama team lacks luster and diversity is in the realm of business. Few of his key people can point to significant business experience. In 2001, Bush had four former CEOs (including his vice president) in the Cabinet: career Texas oil man Donald Evans at Commerce; Treasury's O'Neill, who had run Alcoa for almost 15 years; and Defense's Rumsfeld, who had spent some 15 years at the helm of three businesses, including the international pharmaceutical firm G.D. Searle. Cheney had been CEO of the oil-services and construction giant Halliburton from 1995 to 2000. Even Bill Clinton recruited from business: Thomas (Mack) McLarty, CEO of the natural-gas company Arkla, became his chief of staff, and Hazel O'Leary, an executive vice president of a Minnesota utility firm, was his Energy secretary. (They failed to distinguish themselves in those posts, however.)

As with quite a few Democratic pols these days, a number of Obama's Cabinet members do have links to the world of finance. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has close -- some critics say too close -- ties to the heads of giant Wall Street investment houses from his days as president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan was a managing director at Prudential Mortgage Capital for affordable-housing investments and its Federal Housing Administration lending program. White House Chief of Staff Emanuel had a successful stint as an investment banker in the Chicago office of Wasserstein Perella after leaving the Clinton White House and before winning a House seat in 2002.

For more than six years, Education Secretary Duncan ran the Ariel Education Initiative, a nonprofit foundation with a small staff that helped to fund better educational opportunities for inner-city children in Chicago. The initiative is a program of Ariel Investments, the Chicago firm run by John Rogers Jr., the ex-husband of Obama senior adviser Jarrett.

But in terms of running a for-profit business, the Obama Cabinet member with the most experience is Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who was Colorado's attorney general and served one term in the Senate. Salazar was a partner in a family-run ranch. He and his wife have also owned and operated small businesses, including a Dairy Queen in Westminster, Colo., as well as radio stations in Pueblo and Denver.

Overall, only 28 percent of Obama's top officials were business executives at some point in their careers, compared with 38 percent of Bush's top officials at the start of his first term.

Although Obama and his wife, Michelle, stress the importance of public service, only a small fraction of the president's team served in the military. Overall, just 12 percent were ever in the armed forces. Of the 82 top appointees who were young men during the Vietnam War (now ages 53 to 63), 20 (24 percent) were in the military and 16 of those currently hold jobs in the Pentagon or the Veterans Affairs Department. For the same age cohort in the Bush administration eight years ago (then ages 45 to 55), just 17 percent (15 out of 88) had served.

Of the 140 Obama officials who are age 48 or younger (the president himself will turn 48 in August), only four -- three men and one woman -- have been in the military. Only one member of Obama's Cabinet has worn a uniform: retired Army Gen. Eric Shinseki, the VA secretary.

The Vietnam War heated up just as another epochal moment in American society was beginning to take shape, the rise of the Baby Boom Generation. Those born at the start of the boom, 1946, were just turning 18 in 1964. And 45 years later, Baby Boomers dominate Obama's team. About two-thirds were born between 1946 and 1964 (making them 44 to 63 years old). Eight percent were born before the boom; 26 percent were born after.

The president often likes to position himself outside the Baby Boomer arguments that have long tied the country in knots, but even he cannot escape the power of a generation -- his own -- that has so dominated our political life. But of the Boomers he has asked to serve the nation, only 47 percent are white men.

This article originally appeared in National Journal's June 20, 2009 Decision Makers special issue. Click here for more information about the issue.