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December 20, 2014

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OTHER VOICES:

More than just ankles

Despite advocating for change, Obama has built himself a relatively white male cabinet

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President Barack Obama ran promoting women’s issues.

But how about promoting some women?

With the old white boys’ club rearing its hoary head in the White House of the first black president, historian Michael Beschloss recalled the days when the distaff was deemed biologically unsuited for the manly discourse of politics. He tweeted: “1/12/1915, U.S. House refused women voting rights. One congressman: ‘Their ankles are beautiful ... but they are not interested in the state.’”

Now comes a parade of women to plead the case for the value of female perspective in high office: Women reach across the aisle, seek consensus, verbalize and empathize more, manage and listen better. Women are more pragmatic, risk-averse and, unburdened by testosterone, less bellicose.

Unfortunately, these “truisms” haven’t held true with many of the top women I’ve covered in Washington.

Janet Reno was trigger-happy on Waco, and a tragic conflagration ensued. Hillary Clinton’s my-way-or-the-highway obduracy doomed her health care initiative; she also voted to authorize the Iraq invasion without even reading the National Intelligence Estimate and badly mismanaged her 2008 campaign. Condi Rice avidly sold W.’s bogus war in Iraq. One of Susan Rice’s most memorable moments was when she flipped the finger at Richard Holbrooke during a State Department meeting.

Maybe these women in the first wave to the top had to be more-macho-than-thou to succeed. And maybe women don’t always bring a completely different or superior skill set to the table. And maybe none of that matters.

We’re equal partners in life and governance now, and we merit equal representation, good traits and bad, warts and all.

It’s passing strange that Obama, carried to a second term by women, blacks and Hispanics, chooses to give away the plummiest Cabinet and White House jobs to white dudes.

If there’s one thing white men have never had a problem with in this clubby, white marble enclave of Washington, it’s getting pulled up the ladder by other men. (New York magazine claims that of late, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has a better record of appointing top women than Obama does.)

Recently, The New York Times ran a startling photo, released by the White House, of the president in the Oval Office surrounded by 10 male advisers (nine white and one black). Valerie Jarrett was there but was obscured by a white guy (though a bit of leg and “beautiful ankle” did show).

Obama has brought in a lot of women, including two he appointed to the Supreme Court, but it is more than an “optics” problem, to use the irritating cliche of the moment. Word from the White House is that the president himself is irritated and demanding answers about the faces his staff is pushing forward. Unfortunately, he has only a bunch of white guys to offer an explanation of why the picture looks like a bunch of white guys.

Right from the start, the president who pledged “Change We Can Believe In” has been so cautious about change that there have been periodic eruptions from women and minorities.

Maybe Obama thinks he’s such a huge change for the nation to digest that everything else must look like the Eisenhower administration, with Michelle obligingly playing Laura Petrie. But it’s Barry tripping over the ottoman.

In more “He’s Like Ike” moments, the president spends his free time golfing with white male junior aides. The mood got sour early in the first term when senior female aides had a dinner to gripe directly to Obama about lack of access and getting elbowed out of big policy debates.

Some women around Obama who say that he never empowers women to take charge of anything are privately gratified at the latest kerfuffle, hoping it will shut down the West Wing man cave. It’s particularly galling because the president won re-election — and a record number of women ascended to Congress — on the strength of high-toned denunciations of the oldfangled Mitt Romney and the Republican kamikaze raid on women.

“We don’t have to order up some binders to find qualified, talented, driven young women” to excel in all fields, the president said on the trail, vowing to unfurl the future for “our daughters.”

It may be because the president knows what a matriarchal world he lives in that he assumes we understand that the most trusted people in his life have been female — his wife, his daughters, his mother, his grandmother, his mother-in-law, his closest aide, Valerie.

But this isn’t about how he feels, or what his comfort zone is, or who’s in his line of sight. It’s about what he projects to the world — not to mention to his own daughters.

Obama is an insular man who is not as dependent on his staff as some other presidents. With no particular vision for his staff, he surrounds himself with guys who then hire their guy friends.

Most people who work in the top tier of campaigns are men; most people who work for Obama now were on his campaigns; ergo, most people in his inner circle are men. Pretty soon, nobody’s thinking it through and going out of the way to reflect a world where daughters have the same opportunities as sons.

And then the avatars of modernity hit the front page of The New York Times, looking just as backward as the pasty, patriarchal Republicans they mocked.

Maureen Dowd is a columnist for The New York Times.

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  1. Dowd is wrong. President Obama is an equal opportunity employer. Women and minorities were an important part of his first term and will be for his second. To the President's credit. I would also add that more women have been elected to Congress than any previous years. While this may not be directly attributed to the President, it surely is not due to a lack of female leadership and importance in his administration. Quite the opposite.

    CarmineD