It is arguable that whom he appoints to his cabinet is the most important decision a president can make, since his cabinet ends up shaping his most significant policy decisions. For instance, it is unlikely that there would have been a war in Iraq had President George W. Bush not had the fervent support of cabinet members like his secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld.
Since Robert C. Weaver became the first African-American cabinet member when he served as President Lyndon Johnson’s secretary of housing and urban development, and Patricia Roberts Harris served in the same role in the Carter administration, presidents have been judged not only for their cabinets’ policy positions but also by their ethnic, racial and gender diversity. (It’s worth noting that much earlier, President Franklin Roosevelt consulted African-American advisers, including Weaver and Mary McLeod Bethune, on a regular basis as part of what was dubbed the “Black Cabinet.”) When asked about his plans for diversity within his own cabinet should he win the presidency, then-candidate Barack Obama said in 2007 that he would look for political diversity as well, naming Republicans like Sen. Dick Lugar and even Arnold Schwarzenegger as possible cabinet nominees.
One of the president’s most surprising, yet politically deft early moves was to nominate his former rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to be his secretary of state. The move, combined with his selection of former opponent Joe Biden as his vice president, led many pundits to compare Obama to a modern-day Abraham Lincoln, remembered for stocking his own cabinet with former opponents, known as his “team of rivals.”
Additionally, the president’s first cabinet reflected the nation’s diversity, with four women, two Latinos and an Asian American in addition to White males. His secondary cabinet posts were diverse as well, with Lisa Jackson serving as the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Susan Rice serving as ambassador to the United Nations and Ron Kirk serving as U.S. trade representative. They are all African American.
Unfortunately, the president’s second-term cabinet nominations have not yet reflected the diversity of his first. Even more disturbing to some, they have not reflected the diversity of his Republican predecessor’s. George W. Bush nominated four African Americans to cabinet posts. The president’s most recent nominees — Sen. John Kerry, Sen. Chuck Hagel and Jack Lew — are White men.