Obama Diversity Problem Goes Deep

Glass CeilingAbout two weeks ago at the New York Times, Annie Lowrey wrote what I think is a very important article, In Obama’s High-Level Appointments, the Scales Still Tip Toward Men. It is based on an important fact: women are no better represented in the Obama administration than they were in the Clinton administration. This is interesting given that the two administrations are separated by almost two decades. Now it is true that Obama is doing better than Bush, but that’s to be expected; Democratic presidents are not supposed to be sexist racist homophobic assholes. So we really should get better, especially considering that there are far more women who are what today passes for an acceptable political appointee.

I think the problem is not that Obama is sexist, because he clearly isn’t. But he very much has the “old boys club” mentality. I’ve written about this in the past. Obama is very insular—equally as much as Bush Jr was. I never would have guessed that before he was elected, and in fact, that was what I considered the best argument for him. But now, he seems to value comity above getting the best solutions. I think we have seen this throughout his administration, from the economic stimulus to same sex marriage.

But the best example comes with the Federal Reserve and who is going to replace Ben Bernanke. The obvious choice is Janet Yellen. Not only is she extremely well qualified for the job and second in line for it anyway, she would be the first woman to ever have the job. I don’t mean to suggest that Obama is unaware of these facts. But all of it seems to be trumped by the fact that one of his “boys,” Larry Summers, wants the job. So it doesn’t matter that Summers has been catastrophically wrong about really important things for the last 20 years; he’s one of the insiders and Obama wants to give the job to him.

I had major problems with the Clinton administration—especially on economic policy. But it is at least true that he tried to get many and varied opinions on issues. And that was reflected in the excellent job he did in terms of filling his administration with women. I think Obama is doing a worse job because he isn’t like that. And there’s even a bit more. My limited experience in corporate America shows that women are at least as good if not better than men in terms of work and skills and brilliance. But women are almost never self-promoting bullshitters. And that’s why, even after most people are not explicitly sexist, men are still far more likely to head companies and important institutions like the Federal Reserve: because people buy all the bullshit.

Matt Yglesias noted something really telling about how Obama fills vacancies in his administration. In Lowrey’s article, she quotes Deputy Chief of Staff Alyssa Mastromonaco defending Obama’s hiring practices. But she’s been a big victim of those practices:

Mastromonaco was made deputy chief of staff on Jan. 27, 2011, serving under William Daley. When Daley stepped down about a year later, he was replaced by Jack Lew, the director of the Office of Management and Budget. When Lew stepped down after a year of service, he was replaced by Denis McDonough, the deputy national security adviser. Both Lew and McDonough seem to me to have done quite well at their jobs and improved White House management from where it was in the Rahm and Daley eras. But both times the job went vacant, the chance existed to give the job to a woman for the first time ever. And the chance wasn’t taken, even though “promote the deputy chief of staff to chief of staff” seems a lot more logical than “promote the deputy national security adviser to chief of staff.”

I think the problem is that Mastromonaco is “merely” competent. She wasn’t “exciting.” And if this sounds kind of like how teenagers manage their love lives, it isn’t a coincidence. Obama seems to be a little hung up on the idea that some people just have a magic spark that makes them great at their jobs. My experience in the world is that intelligence and hard work are the only things that matter. Obama’s magic thinking has led to sub-optimal policy, but also to a less diverse administration.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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