WASHINGTON (AP) — As he prepares to announce a new wave of Cabinet and other senior posts, President Barack Obama is aiming to put a more diverse face on his administration — an image that was missing as he filled the first round of vacancies of his second term with a parade of white men.
Obama is said to be looking at women, Latinos and openly gay candidates for top slots at the departments of Commerce, Labor and Interior, and for his own White House budget office.
The leading candidate for nomination to be secretary of commerce is Penny Pritzker, a long-time Obama ally and big-money fundraiser from Chicago, according to people familiar with the White House selection process. The top candidate to lead the White House Office of Management and Budget is Sylvia Mathews Burwell, who was a former budget, White House and treasury official in the Clinton administration and is now the president of the Wal-Mart Foundation.
Both women, if nominated, would replace men, bringing business and government experience to the jobs and helping rebalance the male dominance of Obama's early nominations at the State Department, Treasury and the Pentagon — the three top posts in the Cabinet. In addition to selecting former Sen. John Kerry for secretary of state, Jack Lew for treasury secretary and former Sen. Chuck Hagel for defense secretary, Obama last month also nominated John Brennan to be CIA director. Then he appointed Denis McDonough as his new chief of staff.
The initial series of personnel decisions stood out not only because the posts are so high-profile, but because Obama has pledged to bring a racial and gender mix to his administrative team. Obama also chose Kerry to replace Hillary Rodham Clinton, who had been the most high-profile woman in the Cabinet, after weighing whether to nominate U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice to the post.
Moreover, the president won a second term last year thanks to a broad coalition of women, Hispanics and other minorities.
Besides Commerce and the White House budget office, Obama is also looking to fill top vacancies or openings at the departments of Labor, Interior, Energy and Transportation, and at the Environmental Protection Agency.
Obama and his aides bristle at the suggestion that the president is reversing his own diversity advances and say any criticism is premature and does not take into account his efforts in other areas of government, particularly in his nominations to the judiciary. Also, about 50 percent of White House employees are women.
In filling the job of labor secretary, Obama is expected to nominate a Hispanic to replace Hilda Solis, a former California congresswoman and a Hispanic. Among those considered for the spot is Tom Perez, the assistant U.S. attorney general for civil rights and a former secretary of Maryland's Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, according to people familiar with the process. Some in the labor movement have pushed for John Perez, the speaker of the California Assembly and former labor organizer, and the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda has proposed the White House consider Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., a former labor lawyer.
Among the names under consideration for interior secretary is John Berry, the current director of the Office of Personnel Management and a former senior official at the Interior Department. He is the highest-ranking openly gay official in the government.
White House officials caution that no final decisions have been made.
Obama clearly is sensitive to the image that his selections create. At a news conference last month, the president argued that in his first term women were particularly influential in his foreign policy and in his signature health care initiative. He noted that his secretary of homeland security is a woman, Janet Napolitano, and that he nominated two women to the Supreme Court.
"People should expect that that record will be built on during the next four years," he said at the time. "But I would just suggest that everybody kind of wait until they've seen all my appointments, who is in the White House staff and who is in my Cabinet, before they rush to judgment."
In reassembling his White House staff two weeks ago, Obama elevated legislative director Rob Nabors, who is African-American, to senior adviser and named Jennifer Palmieri as his communications director.
The attention to the composition of a president's Cabinet and to the inner circle that advises him not only serves political purposes but helps introduce more views to presidential decision making and provides a symbolic mirror to the country.
"People speak specifically about looking carefully at what President Obama is doing and holding him to a certain standard, but I think the bigger reality is that going forward every president will be held to that standard, or should be held to that standard," said Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist who worked in the Clinton White House. "You want to have a staff that reflects diversity. Different perspectives around the table help make better decisions."
If Obama selects Pritzker for commerce, he will be choosing a businesswoman who is well-known in Washington and is held in high regard within groups such as the Business Roundtable. Pritzker was Obama's campaign finance chairwoman in 2008 but took a lower profile in the re-election campaign. Obama picked her to be one of 16 members of his Presidential Economic Recovery Advisory Board in 2009, and when that board expired, Obama included her in his 26-member Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.
She is an heir of the Pritzker family that founded the Hyatt chain of hotels. Her name emerged in late 2008 as a potential commerce secretary, but Obama eventually tapped former Washington Gov. Gary Locke.
Burwell, if confirmed, would assume the leadership of the Office of Management and Budget as Congress and the White House struggle over fiscal policies, including Obama's demand for deficit reduction through a mix of spending cuts and higher tax revenue. Burwell was chief of staff to Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin during the Clinton administration and served as deputy OMB director under Jack Lew, the current treasury secretary nominee.
Before taking her job at the Wal-Mart Foundation in 2011, Burwell was the president of the Gates Foundation's Global Development Program.
Follow Jim Kuhnhenn on Twitter: http://twitter.com/jkuhnhenn