NBC: Say, this 2nd-term transition has really been an “unforced error,” huh? Update: Rangel calls it “embarrassing as hell”

posted at 10:41 am on January 10, 2013 by Ed Morrissey

You think?  Chuck Todd and his colleagues at NBC certainly do, and they’re a bit mystified by it.  Writing at First Read, Todd et al suggest that Mitt Romney put more thought into the next Cabinet than Barack Obama did, and prepared better for it, too.  While some of the Cabinet appointment decisions got forced on Obama because of circumstance, no one seems to be in charge of managing the transition in order to minimize that very problem:

But since November, where the White House has fallen short — and seemed completely disorganized — has been in its planning for staffing the second term. For starters, Susan Rice’s and Chuck Hagel’s potential nominations to top cabinet jobs were allowed to twist in the wind for weeks, with Rice eventually pulling out of consideration for secretary of state and Hagel now in real fight to win confirmation as defense secretary. In addition, the White House yesterday announced that Labor Secretary Hilda Solis was leaving the administration — on the very day the New York Times ran a piece observing the lack of women in the administration. And also yesterday, the White House said Attorney General Eric Holder, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shineski are staying in a second term, but it didn’t announce what’s happening with the other cabinet secretaries, which then set off mini-feeding frenzies “are you staying, are you going?” for the cabinet secretaries not included on this seemingly arbitrary list.

Bottom line: The second-term cabinet shuffle has been an unforced error so far. (The reason why the White House is receiving criticism for a lack of diversity is that it has nominated three consecutive white men for cabinet posts — John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, and today Jack Lew — but without a high-profile woman or minority thrown into the mix. And that doesn’t include John Brennan at CIA and a likely white male to be the next White House chief of staff.) Indeed, you could argue that the Romney folks thought a lot more about staffing a Romney administration over the next four years than Team Obama did about a second-term administration. In fairness to the White House, its top officials were so focused on the fiscal-cliff talks in the past two months. What’s more, this kind of disorganization isn’t unusual for a second term, especially after winning a hard-fought race for re-election. And finally, it’s a process story. At the end of the day, it’s likely that Obama’s second-term cabinet will have plenty of diversity and top-notch names. But the process hasn’t been pretty. Question for the White House: Why didn’t it have a second-term transition director? Someone whose full-time job was to keep an eye on the optics of how and when to announce, on the leaks etc.?

This goes to a chronic problem for Obama and his team — they’re a lot better at campaigning than at actual governing.  They can build successful organizations for winning elections and raising money, but they can’t figure out how to organize staffing decisions so that they don’t run into the Diversity Police after it.  Obama can rile up class-warfare passions to push for Buffett Rule tax hikes, but can’t write a budget that can gain a single vote in a chamber his own party controls … two years in a row.

With that in mind, should we be surprised that his second-term Cabinet rollout has produced embarrassment and backtracking?  Let’s not forget that his first Cabinet rollout produced the same kind of disorganization when it became clear that no one was vetting potential nominees, or at least not vetting them successfully.

After all, when Ruth Marcus at the Washington Post is skewering a Democratic President for a lack of diversity, you know something has run off the rails:

The face of power that President Obama has chosen to present to the country and the world with his second-term Cabinet picks is striking — except for the African American president at the top of the pyramid — for its retro look, white and male. It’s “Mad Men” Goes to Washington, except Peggy’s leaving.

On the foreign policy team, white guy for secretary of state, white guy for defense secretary, white guy for CIA. For Treasury secretary, white guy. Obama’s replacement as chief of staff — as yet unnamed, but the rumor mill names no one but . . . white guys.

To be clear: I’ve got nothing against white guys. Some of my best husbands are white guys. White guys get to be secretary of state, too, and John Kerry will be the first in 16 years. But to look at the most important jobs in the government, in 2013, and see such lack of diversity is just so drearily disappointing. …

The White House will point to women in other Cabinet positions — although one, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, has just announced her resignation — and to women in sub-Cabinet roles. Okay, but State, Defense and Treasury, along with Justice, are the Big Boy jobs. It matters if some of those boys are girls. It sends a disturbing signal when they’re not.

We can argue with this bean-counting point of view, but the White House can’t.  They ran on this bean-counting point of view, making fun of Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” comment that overlooked his more successful effort to produce gender balance on his gubernatorial cabinet in Massachusetts.  They are being hoist by their own petard, and as National Journal’s Jill Lawrence points out, it’s not likely to get any better now:

Say Obama wants to make a grand gesture; what jobs are left? If he names a female labor secretary to succeed Solis, that will keep him at the status quo. But it’s not a top job and it’s one many women have held. Plus Solis is Hispanic, so now there’s that to worry about as well.

The only immediate opening with stature roughly equivalent to secretary of State, Defense, or Treasury is Lew’s job as White House chief of staff. To name a woman, Obama would have to throw top mentionees Ron Klain (former chief of staff to Vice Presidents Al Gore and Joe Biden) and Denis McDonough (currently deputy national-security adviser) under the bus. He does have some logical female options, starting with Nancy-Ann DeParle and Alyssa Mastromonaco. Both now hold the title of deputy chief of staff.

The most amusing part of this entire problem is that Obama had an opportunity to defuse it before it erupted.  Rather than pick Chuck Hagel, seen mainly as a way to stick a thumb in the eye of Republicans, he could have promoted Michelle Fluornoy at Defense instead.  Not only would that have interrupted the monochromatic (monogenderic, anyway) parade that has caught the media’s attention, it would have arguably been a much better choice anyway, and one much less likely to create controversy in the confirmation process.

These people are great at running campaigns.  Too bad they couldn’t just stick to that.

Update: How bad has it gotten?  Even Charlie Rangel’s “embarrassed as hell“:

The longtime Democratic House member from New York, whose district includes Harlem, made the comments in an interview on MSNBC. Obama has announced a series of high-profile cabinet nominations in recent days, all of who have been white men.

“It’s embarrassing as hell,” Rangel said. “You have to do these things because it’s the right thing to do as a symbol of what America stands for.”

When you’ve managed to embarrass the shameless, you’ve really accomplished something.


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