Obama sends message with new cabinet

2013-01-18 11:00

Washington - A dearth of diversity in Barack Obama's top picks for his new cabinet is overshadowing signs of intent the US president is sending with his freshened team ahead of his second term.

Obama takes the oath of office on Sunday ahead of four more years in the White House, a watershed moment that will see familiar faces, led by Hillary Clinton, depart and new blood ushered in to implement the president's political agenda.

His personnel decisions, both at the cabinet level and in a rejigging of his White House inner circle, presage a fierce defence of Obama's political legacy at home and abroad in his second term.

While posts in a president's cabinet are highly sought after, the centralisation of power in the White House often leaves the secretaries of top government departments chafing at a lack of clout.

But several of Obama's top cabinet picks - like Chuck Hagel, John Kerry and Jack Lew, his nominees to run the departments of Defence, State and Treasury - clearly reflect the president's worldview and may wield significant influence.

Some cabinet members who are staying on, like Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius - in charge of implementing Obama's top domestic achievement health care reform - will also play key roles.

Middle aged white men

Senator Kerry and ex-senator Hagel, Vietnam veterans both, are sceptical of US military adventures abroad, and backed a fundamental project of Obama's presidency - getting troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

They are also wary of embroiling the United States in another war over Iran's nuclear programme, though they will publicly back Obama's position that he is ready to use force as a last resort should diplomacy fail.

Sebelius will be entrusted with ensuring that ObamaCare, which has yet to be fully implemented, is irrevocably embedded in the fabric of US life by the time the president hands over the keys to the White House in January 2017.

Media buzz surrounding Obama's second cabinet has focused mainly on the fact that the first African American president, who won power thanks to a diverse racial and gender coalition, picked middle aged white men for top cabinet jobs.

In fact, but for winning a majority of votes among women back in November, Obama might not be living in the White House at all.

Aides dismiss the idea that Obama has fallen short of diversity goals, pointing out that his two Supreme Court picks have been women, one a Hispanic, and that he has many females in positions of power around him.

Diversity valued

Perhaps Obama's closest adviser is Valerie Jarrett, a mentor who followed his family from Chicago to the White House, and he was brought up by strong female role models in his mother and grandmother in the absence of his father.

Eric Holder, the African American attorney general, is also staying on.

Obama had been expected to name UN Ambassador Susan Rice, an African American, as secretary of state, but her chances of Senate confirmation evaporated amid Republican outrage over the aftermath of the raid on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya on 11 September.

"I think his record demonstrates the value he places on diversity," White House spokesperson Jay Carney said, adding that more diverse appointments could be expected with remaining open cabinet posts.

Obama also addressed the issue during a press conference last week.

"I think until you've seen what my overall team looks like, it's premature to assume that somehow we're going backward. We're not going backward, we're going forward."

Outside advice

Thomas Mann, a political scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington said that once Obama's full cabinet is announced - with expected or announced openings in big departments like Interior, Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency - the picture could be more diverse.

But Obama's new cabinet will differ from his first term, in dispensing with the "Team of Rivals" approach that included his former Democratic primary foe Clinton and Republican secretary of defence Robert Gates, who had served under George W Bush's administration.

The selection of Clinton, which surprised senior aides, turned out to be a masterstroke, as the former first lady proved to be a political asset at the State Department, and Obama in effect removed a potential critic from the fray.

Few insiders expect Kerry and Hagel, substantial figures in their own right, to be shrinking violets, but they are expected to keep any policy differences inside the Obama administration tent.

Some Obama critics question whether the president, who tends to stick to aides who have been with him for years for his White House kitchen cabinet, will get enough outside advice.

In one promotion from inside, Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough is expected to succeed Lew for the crucial post of chief of staff.