Critics Rail Obama for Diversity Dearth in Cabinet Picks

John Kerry, John Brennan, Jack Lew and Chuck Hagel. (National Journal)

The first African-American president is being chewed out by columnists for not paying enough attention to diversity. Margaret Carlson of Bloomberg View  — and a friend —  says Obama's problem is that he doesn't look beyond his nose for more minority recruits, while The Washington Post's Ruth Marcus says, "About all those white guys: What a shame. Not an outrage, but a shame."

Both joke that he should have taken Romney's binders full of women.

I suppose this moment was inevitable as well as ironic. Barack Obama, who has been pilloried by conservatives for a 1991 protest at Harvard Law School demanding more faculty diversity, finds himself on the receiving end.

Once it became clear that the top tier of Cabinet positions would be all male — attorney general, and secretaries of Defense, State, and Treasury — there'd be grousing, even if Health and Human Services has the biggest budget and Homeland Security is a behemoth. Defense, State, and Treasury are the oldest departments, and the ones with heads who are next in line to be president after the speaker of the House and president pro tempore of the Senate. Had the president named former defense official Michelle Flournoy to the top post at the Pentagon or a woman to Treasury such as Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg (whom Carlson cited despite that ill-fated IPO), he wouldn't be getting so much grief.

Diversity as a numbers game is arguably necessary but surely insufficient. You can add up the numbers of African-Americans and women and gays and say "This looks right. This is just," but surely there are other ways to define identity.

Chuck Hagel can be dismissed as a white guy — or seen as the first infantry soldier to be chosen to sit atop the Pentagon and the only conservative Republican in a Democratic Cabinet, a more cautious voice in a sea of interventionists. Seeing him just as a component of racial and gender statistics seems more than a little shortsighted.

Look at the Supreme Court. Obama appointed two women to the bench, which thrilled women's groups, as it should. But the chamber now lacks any elected officials and any Protestants or veterans, which it had before. And new groups have been ignored. Where's the Asian justice?

There's always going to be something lacking. The larger question for a president is whether there's a diversity of ideas and experiences as well as races and genders. Hiring more Ivy Leaguers who vacation on Martha's Vineyard — whether they take a house in African-American-rich Oak Bluffs, like Valerie Jarrett, or own in whiter up-sland like Steve Rattner — isn't really widening your horizon that much. Leaving aside whether or not the president should have fought for Susan Rice, is her background (National Cathedral School, Stanford, Rhodes scholar) so much more diverse than that of John Kerry (St. Paul's, Yale, Boston College)?

No one wants to go back to the days when one or two Cabinet members were minorities. Ronald Reagan's first Cabinet included an African-American secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Samuel Pierce, whom the Gipper once mistook for a mayor. Bill Clinton upped the minority numbers significantly by putting African-Americans at jobs like Commerce and Agriculture and appointing the first women to be secretary of State and attorney general. George W. Bush continued the progress by replacing Colin Powell with Condi Rice, even if his administration's overall numbers were lower.

Everyone should rightfully have a frisson when a barrier is broken. It was tantalizing when blacks such as James Earl Jones and Morgan Freeman played the president in films. It was exhilarating to Americans of all political denominations when Obama won. And personal ethnic pride is inevitable, if at times embarrassing. (My son is annoyed that I'm always keeping a head count on which actresses and athletes are Jewish.) So, onward.

But if we can't see past the most obvious categories of diversity — race, gender, sexual orientation — then we're missing a lot. It's not how we'd want to be viewed, and its too simplistic a way of looking at the Cabinet.