Obama's picks mirror his multicultural background

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON - A Cabinet that looks like America. That's been the goal for recently elected presidents as they put together their administrations.

Barack Obama's team is coming into focus in a slightly different light: It looks, to a remarkable degree, like him.

The president-elect says he wants to recruit "Americans of great intellect, broad experience and good character." He's fleshing out his White House and administration with men and women who reflect his racial heritage, cultural background and intelligence.

Obama said during his presidential campaign that "one of the things that sets this country apart is that there is no one who looks like a typical American."

And yet, as the first biracial president, he will uniquely embody 21st-century America. The nation is becoming more diverse every year, with more than one in three Americans a member of a minority group. Within a generation, minorities will be a majority of the population, the Census Bureau has projected.

Moving more swiftly than his predecessors in forming a government, Obama has been parading his racially and ethnically diverse appointees before the cameras in Chicago. They showcase a commitment to give minorities senior government jobs, and potentially create the most diverse administration yet.

Obama is expected to name the first African-American attorney general, Eric Holder, and is said to be considering Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown for secretary of veterans affairs.

African-Americans will stand out on his White House staff. They include senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, Domestic Policy Council chief Melody Barnes, Deputy Budget Director Rob Nabors and social secretary Desiree Rogers, the first African-American in that post.

Putting minorities and women into highly visible positions is also a form of political payback. Heavy support from women and minority voters is the reason Obama, and not John McCain, will be president.

New York Sen. Hillary Clinton is widely reported to be his choice for secretary of state, the diplomatic face of the United States and historically the most powerful Cabinet member (who has not been a white man in more than a decade). Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano is expected to be homeland security secretary, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Hispanic, is in line for commerce secretary. Women have been given top positions inside the White House, including as head of the Council of Economic Advisers and the communications shop.

These personnel picks reflect Obama's multicultural background, which also is why his election has been cheered by many overseas. The son of an African man, he spent childhood years in Indonesia and likes to recall that his first roommates in college were Indian and Pakistani.

Those blood ties and personal experiences inform Obama's world view and, he argues, will help promote America's image overseas.

"If you can tell people, 'We have a president in the White House who still has a grandmother living in a hut on the shores of Lake Victoria and has a sister who's half-Indonesian, married to a Chinese-Canadian,' then they're going to think that he may have a better sense of what's going on in our lives and in our country," he has said.

In his top appointments, Obama seems drawn to others whose lives transcend borders, too, and who may, as a consequence, be more in tune with a globalized financial and political environment.

Treasury Secretary-designate Timothy Geithner grew up in Africa, Tokyo, New Delhi and Bangkok. The likely pick for national security adviser, James Jones, was raised in France. The next White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, has an Israeli father. Senior White House adviser Pete Rouse has a Japanese mother. The parents of Cabinet secretary Chris Lu are Chinese.

Like other smart people, Obama prefers to surround himself with smart thinkers. Superior intelligence will be the coin of the realm in his White House, the one variable that connects those in top policymaking positions.

Those joining him in Washington have scaled the heights of achievement - often, like Obama, from modest beginnings. It's no surprise that his early favorite for vice president was said to be Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, a bright politician with Midwestern roots who interrupted his studies at Harvard Law School for a life-changing Jesuit teaching mission in Honduras.

Some commentators have been quick to slap the "best and the brightest" label on Obama's choices. The allusion, not entirely flattering, is to John F. Kennedy's circle of influential aides, which included some of the leading intellectuals of the time. JFK's Cabinet looked like him and reflected the leadership of mid-20th-century America: It was all-white and all-male.

Like the old Kennedy crowd, many Obama insiders have Ivy League degrees, as does the president-elect (Columbia University, Harvard Law).

But Obama will have "a more diverse Cabinet than people have realized," Paul Light of New York University, a close student of the transition, said in an interview. "They come from very different destinations and they share one characteristic: They're damn smart, and they know how to make decisions."

Similar words of praise once were directed toward Kennedy's brain trust, whose seeming intelligence did not keep them from recommending disastrous choices that led to a tragic war in Vietnam.

When Kennedy took office, foreign policy was his focus. The Russians had taken the lead in the space race, and there was anxiety in America about the progress of the Cold War.

Shortly after being sworn in, Kennedy decided to back an ill-advised plot to overthrow the Communist government of Cuba's Fidel Castro. The CIA-planned invasion of the Bay of Pigs became an early, and devastating, embarrassment for the new president.

On April 19, 1961, bad news was streaming into the White House from the beachhead. JFK's brother, Robert Kennedy, the attorney general, cast his eyes over the men seated around the table in the Cabinet Room. Finally, he lashed out in frustration. "All you bright fellows," he said, "have gotten the president into this."

That experience could be a cautionary lesson for Obama. His new economic team, widely praised for its brilliance, is already grappling with the worst domestic economic crisis in decades. Responsibility for the problem, at least in the public's eyes, will soon be his alone.

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