WASHINGTON — Wednesday’s “photo of the day” on the White House website showed an unusual sight in Oval Office history — the president surrounded by top advisors, only half of whom are white men.
The picture seemed calculated to counter criticism that President Obama’s new set of Cabinet appointees so far all are white and male.
Obama is expected to name his chief of staff, Jacob Lew, to lead the Treasury Department. Further compounding the diversity problem, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton plans to leave the administration soon, and Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis announced Wednesday that she was resigning.
Following Solis’ decision, three Cabinet officials quickly spread the word that they planned to stay, at least for now: Eric H. Holder Jr., the first black attorney general; Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius; and Veterans Affairs chief Eric K. Shinseki, who is Japanese American.
But the concerns still hover over the president as he attempts to craft a team that lives up to the diversity standards of his first term. Aides say Obama raised the point himself after United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice took herself out of the running for secretary of State.
Obama places a high value on a team with a variety of experience and knowledge, aides say. More than 40% of the president’s appointees have been women, according to administration officials, and the gender breakdown on the White House staff is 50-50.
“This president is committed to diversity,” said Jay Carney, Obama’s press secretary. “Look at the record. It is a vast improvement” from previous administrations.
Still, Obama’s first round of appointments has been striking in its homogeneity. This week he nominated former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel to serve as secretary of Defense and anti-terrorism advisor John Brennan to lead the CIA. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) is slated to succeed Clinton at the State Department.
Lew is white, as are two leading candidates to fill his position: Washington lawyer Ron Klain, former chief of staff to the vice president; and Denis McDonough, a deputy national security advisor. The third is Nancy-Ann DeParle, a deputy chief of staff and a specialist on healthcare issues.
The New York Times noted the phenomenon in a story Wednesday accompanied by an image of Obama that was released recently in a collection of 2012 photographs. In it, Obama faces a semicircle of 11 advisors — 10 of them men, eight of whom are white. The only woman, senior advisor Valerie Jarrett, is almost completely obscured.
Aides complained that the photo wasn’t representative. They prefer the day’s whitehouse.gov photo, showing an Oval Office meeting involving Jarrett, DeParle and White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is a leading candidate to be attorney general one day.
And Rice, who as U.N. ambassador sits with the Cabinet, is a contender for national security advisor at some point in Obama’s second term.
Carney urged critics not to judge the diversity of Obama’s appointees too quickly.
“I think it would be useful to wait and make judgments about this issue after the president has made the totality of appointments that he will make in the transition to a second term,” Carney said.