On Wednesday, President Obama named Sally Jewell to replace outgoing Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. Jewell is the CEO of Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI), a company specializing in outdoor clothing and gear.
Jewell’s nomination addresses criticisms that have been directed at Obama’s second term cabinet. The first is that the diversity that was a hallmark achievement of Obama’s first term was being eroded as all of Obama’s selections for his second term were white men. The second is that the cabinet lacked representation from the business world. Diversity is the key characteristic that swept Obama into his second term and that diverse coalition wants a seat at the highest tables in Obama’s administration.
In the president's first term, 65% of his cabinet and cabinet-level positions were held by women and minorities. This was a reflection of the diversity of the country and recognition of the multicultural coalition that elected him to be president. His second term appointments, however, have all been white men, including John Kerry (State), Chuck Hagel (Defense), John Brennan (CIA), Jack Lew (Treasury), and Denis McDonough (chief of staff). Each of these selections were highly qualified and race or gender played no role in the selections, however it did draw criticism from some that represent Obama’s base. Maureen Dowd of the New York Times put it this way, “It’s passing strange that Obama, carried to a second term by women, blacks and Latinos, chooses to give away the plummiest Cabinet and White House jobs to white dudes." Dowd went on to question the president's follow-through, asking, “Obama ran promoting women’s issues. But how about promoting some women?”
Diversity was supposed to be a priority for Obama in his effort to ensure full and adequate representation for all Americans, but criticism has been launched by every group that played a significant role in Obama’s reelection, including African Americans, Latinos, and women. Mary Frances Berry said, “he’s not being held accountable for his policies or his appointments.”
Hector Sanchez, leader of National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, stated, “It's just an issue of fairness” and pointed to immigration reform as an example of where diversity brings a different and broader perspective. He wrote in a letter to the president, “With the Latino community heading into the epicenter of an historic policy debate around immigration reform, and related policies, your Cabinet can ill-afford to not have the unique perspective and voice of high-level Latino members.”
For his part, Obama has defended his appointments and his cabinet by urging critics to be patient and wait for all the nominations to be completed before rushing to judgment. Obama said he was proud of the diversity of his first cabinet and intended to continue along that path.
Obama has several other positions to fill including Commerce, Labor, Transportation and Energy, as well as EPA administrator and U.S. Trade Representative. All of these positions were held by women and/or minorities in his first term. “We haven’t completed the formation of my Cabinet,” he said. “So I’ll let people judge it after all my appointments have been made whether or not we’ve made progress.”
Jewell has a solid reputation as an environmental conservationist renowned for her business acumen and executive leadership skills. With her appointment Obama appears to be responding to his critics and is holding true to his word that his cabinet makeup will be diverse, representative, and fully qualified. With at least six more appointments to go, the base that elected him will be watching and waiting for him to keep his word.