Biden cupboard: Does this new staff higher replicate America?

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From Ritu Prasad
BBC News

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Joe Biden’s first cabinet as US president is described as potentially the most diverse of all time.

When George Washington convened the first cabinet meeting two centuries ago – although he did not call it that – he anchored the idea of ​​fostering different perspectives in the heart of the US government. Of course, in 1791, all of the voices in the room were white and male.

You won’t find the cabinet mentioned in the lines of the Constitution, but the first president recognized the value of advisers who could guide him on important issues while bringing different points of view to the table.

In 2021, America soon saw its first Native American cabinet secretary; first female national intelligence director; first head of the Latin American Homeland Security Agency; first openly gay cabinet member and more.

Mr Biden has been under pressure from all sides to keep his promises of a cabinet that truly reflects the country, rather than a number of familiar political faces.

The Biden appointed

“This cabinet will be more representative of the American people than any other cabinet in history,” Biden told reporters in December.

Among them are Congressman Deb Haaland, the first Native American Cabinet Secretary in US history, and Miguel Cardona, who is from Puerto Rico, as its chief education officer.

Mr Biden’s first cabinet is even more diverse than that of Barack Obama, who almost truly reflected the country but fell short with seven women for 16 men and only one black secretary.

But not everyone was happy with their choices. When Mr Biden selected General Lloyd Austin to head the Pentagon – the first black man to do so – other activists were upset that a woman’s position had again been denied. And Mr Biden selected two white men to run state and agricultural agencies – Anthony Blinken and Tom Vilsack – when progressive groups would have preferred black women nominated for the roles.

Progressive liberals also criticized Mr Biden’s selection as too safe, too moderate, too established and too old. For many of the supporters who have given Mr. Biden the presidency, he is not there yet.

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Since 1933, only 11 presidents have appointed women to cabinet positions. No cabinet has ever reached the gender or racial balance of the country.

The cabinet size can vary depending on the administration, but is made up of around 15 managers. Over the past 30 years the trend has been towards greater representation – or at least until the Trump administration.

The 1993 Clinton Administration

On the day President Bill Clinton took office, the Washington Post wrote that the new Democratic leader had “assembled the most diverse cabinet in history: five women, four blacks and two Latinos.”

Clinton’s small business owner Aida Alvarez was the first Latina to be appointed to a cabinet position.

The 2001 Bush administration

President George W. Bush’s first cabinet was hailed by the New York Times as “as ethnically and racially diverse a government team as President Clinton’s”.

Mr. Bush elected Colin Powell, son of Jamaican immigrants, as the country’s first black secretary of state. He also appointed Norman Mineta – a Democrat who became the first Asian American to hold a cabinet seat under Mr Clinton – to head his transportation division.

The Bush administration later made history again with the appointment of Condoleezza Rice: the first black woman to serve as Secretary of State and then National Security Advisor. Mr. Bush also placed the first Pacific Islander and Asian American, Elaine Chao, in a cabinet role as Labor Secretary.

The Obama administration in 2009

The historic first cabinet of President Barack Obama has been described as a “majority minority”. Mr. Obama’s inner circle had seven women, nine minorities, and only eight white men.

Under Obama, Susan Rice became the first black woman to serve as US ambassador to the United Nations, and Eric Holder became the first black US attorney general.

The 2016 Trump Administration

In a throwback to the Reagan era, President Donald Trump’s inner circle was especially white, wealthy, and masculine – though he had more women in his White House than previous Republicans.

And Mr Trump has appointed women to other administrative roles. He appointed the first Indian-American woman, Nikki Haley, as UN ambassador.

Slow progress

But why did it take women and minorities so long to get into the room where decisions are made?

“When we think about how you get into these roles, one way is to get through an elected office,” says Professor Kelly Dittmar of the Rutgers University Center for American Women and Politics.

“So if there is a lack of women and women with color in the electoral office and the presidents are sometimes looking for cabinet officials there, then you are already starting with an uneven pool.”

We saw the first woman in Congress in 1916, she explains, but it was almost two decades before President Franklin Roosevelt appointed the first woman to a cabinet role (that was, Secretary of Labor Francis Perkins).

The story for black and other ethnic minority Americans took even longer. The first black man took a seat in Congress in 1870, but we didn’t see a black man in the cabinet until President Lyndon Johnson appointed Robert Weaver in 1966. It was not until 1968 that the first black woman was elected to Congress. The first black woman in the cabinet followed in 1977 (Patricia Roberts Harris, Housing Secretary).

The US also has no formal rules that require these groups to be represented equally in government.

Countries with quotas in government or at the political party level have made progress towards equality at the executive level. In Rwanda, for example, 61% of women were in the lower chamber in 2018.

The holdouts

Three key positions – Defense, Treasury and Veterans Affairs – have never been a woman at work.

Prof. Dittmar says there are persistent stereotypes about the expertise of men and women when it comes to defense and national security issues, and opinion polls have shown this gap. Women were not allowed to join the military until 1948.

“Although we have certainly seen greater diversification, these areas belong to the male dominant areas, especially at the highest level,” says Prof. Dittmar. “I am sure that there are all sorts of prejudices in these structures to prevent the rise of women. This explains why these gaps existed, at least historically.”

Then there’s the Treasury Department, where it looks like Mr. Biden’s election, Janet Yellen, is breaking through that particular glass ceiling.

In this area, old time stereotypes have given way. Surveys show that people nowadays tend to rate the genders equally when dealing with the economy.

Why is a (diverse) cabinet important?

According to Wendy Smooth, Professor of Political Science and Gender Studies at Ohio State University, these appointments are a means of signaling broader initiatives and values ​​- inextricably linked to politics, but also to indicators of identity.

“One of the first ways a presidential administration expresses its willingness to be accountable is through cabinet decisions,” says Prof. Smooth.

“These are the first acts that demonstrate the will of the administration, the spirit of the administration, the values ​​of the administration. It is a moment of identity. It will be who we are as Biden administration and who we want to connect with in the American public. “

It may be difficult to measure the meaning of symbolism directly, but turning preconceived notions of leadership upside down can have very tangible effects.

“When you see a woman for the first time as Secretary of Defense, does that disrupt expectations that men are better and more competent in defense? Yes, that is inevitable,” says Prof. Dittmar.

She says the same goes for Vice President Kamala Harris and her appointment as a historian.

“I hope that after her tenure as Vice President, the next time women run for the presidency, these questions of eligibility, qualifications or ability are at least less than they were.”

Research from an increasingly diverse congress has shown that women bring priorities and issues to the table that might otherwise have been ignored. “And that is ultimately better in order to develop a policy that better suits the experiences of the population they serve,” explains Prof. Dittmar.

“If you can’t tell me that your life as a woman, or as a black woman, or as a South Asian woman in the United States is the same as your life as a white man, then I don’t understand at all why we wouldn’t expect this one Difference in the lens through which they see politics. “

Around the world…

  • In November, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a new cabinet that will make history. Of the 20 people, five are native Maori and eight are women. One, Nanaia Mahuta, becomes New Zealand’s first female foreign minister. Ms. Ardern has also named Grant Robertson as the first openly gay deputy prime minister.
  • Last year, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson elected a record number of ministers from ethnic minorities – the most racially diverse in British history.
  • In 2015, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was lauded for naming a cabinet that, for the first time, had equal numbers of men and women, as well as racial diversity. In his words: “Because it’s 2015.”

Additional reporting by Silvia Martelli.

Related topics

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  • diversity
  • United States
  • Women

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