No Southerners Yet In Obama Cabinet

This story was written by Amie Parnes.


Barack Obama is 15 picks into his Cabinet - he announced New Yorker Shaun Donovan as his Housing and Urban Development head on Saturday - but has yet to name one who hails from the South.

"Not a one," grumbles a one senior Democratic aide who hails from the South. "Not even half of one, unless you count Hillary Clinton, and she doesn't count because she's not even an Arkansan anymore. She's a Yankee."

To be fair, the official voice of the White House will come with a Southern drawl: Robert Gibbs, Obama's soon-to-be press secretary, is an Alabama native.

But going back to at least John F. Kennedy, every other new president has populated his initial Cabinet with one or more Southerners. Former Texas Gov. George W. Bush included at least three Southerners in his first Cabinet: Donald Evans at Commerce and Rod Paige at Education and Florida's Mel Martinez at Housing and Urban Development.

So why hasn't Obama - who picked up 55 Electoral College votes in North Carolina, Virginia nad Florida - rewarded the region with a Cabinet secretary of its own?

Some Democrats chock it up to happenstance and say Obama is simply picking the most qualified people, no matter the region. Others acknowledge, however, that the paucity of Democrats in Obama's cabinet reflects the declining political power of the red-leaning Southern states and the weakening bench of the blue team there.

"Who comes to mind immediately?" asked Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. "No one, really." 

"The leading politicians in the South at least for the last generation have been active as Republicans," Bullock added. "You just don't have Democrats that come to mind as the go-to person or the expert. It highlights the thinness of the Democratic bench in the South… The skill set is so depleted."

Bullock said Obama doesn't necessarily need a Southerner in his inner circle "but it might help him in the future."

"If he had some Southern cabinet members, this could be someone that they could throw into the fray in [the] 2010 and 2012 [elections]," he said. "That could create a Southern spokesman who could speak up and say, 'Let me tell you what this means for our state and our region.'"

There have been prospects.

Had he not self-destructed in a sex scandal, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards might have landed a Cabinet post. The names of former Georgia Sens. Sam Nunn and Max Cleland briefly bounced around the Obama orbit.

Inez Tenenbaum of South Carolina is in the running for secretary of education. Former Texas Rep. Charlie Stenholm has been mentioned as possible pick for Agriculture secretary.

But Obama hasn't pulled the trigger yet, prompting one former senior Democratic Hill aide to complain of a "geographic snubbing."

"Southerners are pretty sensitive to the stereotype that they are slow in mind as well as voice," the former aide said. "The risk to the president-elect is that if he doesn't appoint anyone from the South to top level policy positions, he is going to look like he is buying into the stereotype that there isn't anyone from the South smart enough to work for him."

But others say the fact that Obama hasn't selected a Southerner is irrelevant. Nationally, Obama is getting high marks for his Cabinet picks so far. According to a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll conducted last week, 65 percent of registered voters rated Barack Obama's Cabinet choices as excellent or good.

Stenholm, who was known as one of the more conservative Democrats in the House, said people shouldn't be thinking about geography.

"If that's the case, why not Swedish Americans?" Stenholm quipped. "I think the Obama administration is picking the best people for the job that have the ability and qualifications to do job."

But with Cabinet selection process coming to an end, picks whittling down, Obama is bound to anger somebody. He has so few Cabinet members and so many religious groups, ethnic groups and other demographic alliances who all want a seat at the table.

Some Hispanics were unhappy when Obama passed over New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson for secretary of State and gave him Commerce instead. That frustration continued Saturday when Saturday when Obama tapped Donovan rather than Miami Mayor Manny Dias to be his HUD secretary.

"We're definitely a little sore about it," one Hispanic Democrat said. "I've heard lots of grumbling in the Hispanic community."

Obama is also under scrutiny from Gay and Lesbian groups who would like to see him make history by tapping an openly gay Cabinet appointee.

"We're still holding out hope that it's going to happen," said Denis Dison, vice president of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund and Leadership Institute. "We've paid our dues in terms of money and effort. It is time for the people of our community to serve at the highest levels of government. This is something our community expects.

The group has been meeting with members of the Obama transition team to make their case.

"There are still a less than half the [Cabinet] seats to fill," Dison added. "We're not disappointed, yet."

During the campaign, Obama was asked if he would consider Republicans in his cabinet, and time and again, he said yes. So far however, his only GOP choice has been Robert Gates, the secretary of defense -- a holdover from the Bush administration.

"Despite his promises to bring bipartisan change to Washington, President-elect Obama continues to nominate party loyalists and Washington insiders to his new administration," said Amber Wilkerson, an RNC spokeswoman. "Nothing says change like Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod, Tom Daschle, Hillary Clinton and Bill Richardson."

Asked about Obama's cabinet selection process, the transition team referred Politico to something the president-elect said at a Dec. 3 press conference:

"I think people are going to say this is one of the most diverse Cabinets and White House staffs of all time. But more importantly, they're going to say these are all people of outstanding qualifications and excellence. So one of the strong beliefs I've always held and has proven to be correct throughout my career is that there's no contradiction between diversity and excellence. I'm looking for the best people first and foremost to serve the American people."

And what if none of the "best people" comes from the South?

Gordon Taylor, a former chief of staff to a southern Democratic member, said some Blue Dog Democrats didn't even realize the gap in geographic diversity until it was pointed out to them.

"The funny thing is, it hasn't really been an issue," Taylor said. "People have been so focused on philosophy and ideology that geography hasn't really come up."

"I think for the most part, Obama has sent a message that he cares about Blue Dog issues and has appointed people like Jim Jones," Taylor said, referring to the president-elect's pick for national security advisor, Marine Gen. James Jones.

Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln, one of four Southern Democratic senators briefly mentioned as a possible pick for Agriculture secretary, said geography isn't a concern to her, either.

"I would love to see Southerners in the Cabinet, yeah absolutely," she said. But the first priority should not be geography but "good competent people."

Lincoln, who serves on the Senate Agriculture Committee, said she would love to see someone from her region fill the slot of Agriculture secretary. "There are plenty of capable Southerners out there," she said.

"It desn't have to be a Southerner," she said. "But it would surely help."

By Amie Parnes
  • Stephen Smith

    Stephen Smith is a senior editor for CBSNews.com

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