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Is Obama's staff diverse?

WASHINGTON

His detractors would like to tell you that the administration of George W. Bush did little to promote racial and gender diversity — that it generally was the same old power structure of middle aged and beyond white guys. The young Barack Obama, on the other hand, would do much better, giving a wide range of Americans the opportunity to serve.

In reality, however, the disparity between the two presidents at this stage of their terms in making government more inclusive is not large. A new study by the National Journal shows that of 366 top Obama officials, 52 percent are white males, down about 7 percent from the Bush White House. If one excludes Bush administration holdovers, that percentage declines to less than half. On the other hand, about 83 percent of the Obama team have prior government experience, with 71 percent of those having served at the federal level. This is just about the same range as the Bush administration.

The National Journal also found that 11 percent of those top officials are African-Americans under Obama, only about 1 percent higher than the percentage of blacks working for Bush. There also is only a 2 percent gap between the number of Hispanics employed by Bush, 6 percent, and Obama, 8 percent. Obama, according to the National Journal, had a 1-point advantage over Bush in the employment of Asians, 4 percent to 3 percent.

Considering the demographics of the Obama electorate, the numbers are somewhat surprising, but the study is encouraging in that it seems to reveal a growing awareness in both national political parties for the need to promote diversification at the highest levels. Most presidents come in promising to establish a staff that touches the entire spectrum of the electorate and is balanced among men, women, whites, blacks, etc. But it isn't an easy promise to keep given the need to develop a staff that is savvy in the ways of Washington.

Still, the National Journal noted in its study that a mere glance around Obama's Cabinet table provides "ample evidence of the president's philosophy that diversity is an important element of good government." It noted that only nine members of the 22-person Cabinet are white men. But the study also conceded that cynics would correctly point out that the most powerful West Wing aides are still mostly white guys.

Some 34 percent of the Obama officials are female, compared with just 26 percent for Bush. On the other hand, neither administration is close to the 52 percent female population. But considering past presidencies, there have been significant strides. The National Journal contends that even this slight increase over Bush's administration in diversity embodies the commitment of the nation's first nonwhite president to make government more representative.

Interestingly, the National Journal study says that compared with Bush's starting lineup, Obama's team is heavier on Harvard degrees and lighter on Christians and Southerners. That's hardly unusual given the fact that both Obama and his wife are Harvard graduates whereas Bush, a Yale graduate, tended to favor those who also graduated from his institution.

Presidents tend to recruit from their own schools. It is hardly astounding that Obama has not dipped heavily into the South, where Republicans still hold sway, nor that there is a wider diversity in religion.

The National Journal found that more than 40 percent of the new president's early appointments and nominations have some link to former President Bill Clinton. But the study found this break with the theme of "change" that hovered over Obama's campaign from beginning to end was unsurprising because Clinton's eight years in the White House gave the Democrats a chance to build a sizable talent pool. That may be a logical conclusion, but it hardly squares with a promise to bring in new ideas.

Most startling, considering that the nation is in economic stress and still involved in two wars, is the realization that only 28 percent of Obama's top officials have had major business experience and that only 12 percent have had military service. Both shortages can't help but give one an uncomfortable feeling.

Is Obama's staff diverse? 07/17/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 17, 2009 3:49pm]

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