- (Photo: White House/Pete Souza)
If all of President Barack Obama's cabinet appointees are confirmed, the most prestigious cabinet posts will all be filled by men. This has renewed an old debate, mostly among liberals, over diversity in the executive branch and Obama's apparent preference for male advisers.
With the appointments of Chuck Hagel for defense secretary, John Kerry for secretary of state, and Jack Lew for treasury secretary, the most top cabinet positions will be held by men, if they are confirmed. (Attorney General Eric Holder is not yet retiring from that position.)
The debate was also sparked by a New York Times story last week in which the paper posted a White House photo on its front page of Obama in the Oval Office surrounded by men. The photo, taken on Dec. 29 by a White House photographer and posted to the White House flickr account, shows Obama with 10 men as they discuss what to do about the "fiscal cliff" negotiations. White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett is the only woman in the room, but with one of the men standing in front of her, her leg is the only part of her visible in the photo.
"That White House photograph was very real, and that's how it is on a day-to-day basis, with a couple of exceptions," New York Times reporter Jeff Zeleny said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union," "but that's how Senator Obama and President Obama has always been, always surrounded by, usually, men."
Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, N.J., defended Obama Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press." Those who are criticizing Obama are behaving like John Kerry's "swift boat" critics during the 2004 election, Booker said, because they are "taking a person's strength and making a weakness out of it."
It was "disingenuous" for The New York Times to show that photo, Booker explained, because almost 50 percent of the White House staff are women, which is "twice the percentage that [President George W.] Bush had and significantly more than what [President Bill] Clinton had."
Liberal MSNBC journalist Andrea Mitchell, who has criticized the lack of gender diversity in the White House on her show, "Andrea Mitchell Reports," was on the panel with Booker and appeared to take offense at being compared to the "swift boaters."
"That was a White House photo," Mitchell said emphatically. "That picture was taken by a White House photographer. That indicated who was around him when they were dealing with the 'fiscal cliff' negotiations. That's what that picture represented. At the highest levels of the White House, you have men, and they are white men."
Mitchell also noted that after her report last week about the lack of gender diversity in the White House she contacted several women in the White House and they told her that they did not have a problem with what she reported.
"The women [in the White House] are not happy," Mitchell added.
Mitchell also complained that there are two women who work directly under White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew who are not even being considered for his replacement.
This would not be the first time Obama was accused of sexism. In 2011, Ron Suskind, a former Wall Street Journal report and Pulitzer Prize winner, wrote a book, Confidence Men, in which he reported on complaints of sexism by women working in the White House.
Senior female officials complained that men in the White House enjoyed greater access to the president and pushed them out of policy discussions. At a 2009 dinner, these women voiced their complaints directly to Obama. After that, and with the encouragement of Jarrett, Obama elevated more women to senior positions, added more women to the re-election campaign staff, and began to recognize the women more in staff meetings.
Suskind also quoted White House Communications Director Anita Dunn as telling him in an interview that the White House would "fit all of the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace to women."
(Dunn denied saying that after the book was released, but Suskind produced an audio tape of the conversation showing that she had said that.)
Obama was also accused of making a "silly, sexist defense of Susan Rice," by Kirsten Powers, a liberal journalist for Newsweek who also worked in the Clinton White House.
In a mid-November press conference, Obama complained about Republicans who said they would object to U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice if she were appointed secretary of state due to her misleading characterization of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on an American consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
"If Sen. [John] McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. [Lindsay] Graham (R-S.C.) and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me," Obama said. "When they go after the U.N. ambassador apparently because they think she's an easy target, then they've got a problem with me."
If Rice were a male, Powers complained, Obama never would have described her as an "easy target" in need of defense.
"It's absurd and chauvinistic for Obama to talk about the woman he thinks should be Secretary of State of the United States as if she needs the big strong man to come to her defense because a couple of Senators are criticizing her," Powers wrote.
Obama has also been criticized for associating with misogynists. During the 2012 campaign, a pro-Obama super-Pac accepted a $1 million donation from comedian Bill Maher, who has been criticized by women's groups for demeaning comments about women. Plus, rapper Jay-Z campaigned with Obama and performed at some of his campaign events. Some of the lyrics to Jay-Z's songs have been described as misogynistic.
The current controversy has reminded some of the hullabaloo over Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's comment during one of the presidential debates. Romney described asking for "binders full of women" when looking to fill positions as governor of Massachusetts.
"It's embarrassing as hell," Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) said in an interview on MSNBC last week. "We've been through all this with Mitt Romney and we were very hard on Mitt Romney with his 'women binder' and a variety of things, and, I kinda think there's no excuse when it's the second term."
"Some women around Obama who say that he never empowers women to take charge of anything are privately gratified at the latest kerfuffle, hoping it will shut down the West Wing man cave," liberal columnist Maureen Dowd wrote Sunday for The New York Times. "It's particularly galling because the president won re-election – and a record number of women ascended to Congress – on the strength of high-toned denunciations of the oldfangled Mitt Romney and the Republican kamikaze raid on women."
In a similar op-ed for The Washington Post called, "Obama needs some binders of women," liberal columnist Ruth Marcus said Obama is sending a "disturbing signal" by appointing only men to the top cabinets posts.