Obama looks for women to fill cabinet

Susan Rice’s decision to drop her bid for secretary of State could give other women a second look at senior positions in President Obama’s second term cabinet.

The president is likely to want a cabinet that reflects the country’s diversity and is made up of more than just white men, who appear to be the frontrunners for the top jobs at the Pentagon, State and Treasury.

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The decision by Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations to avoid a confirmation battle with Senate Republicans could prompt the White House to take a second look at officials such as former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy, who has been mentioned as a candidate to be the first female secretary of Defense.

The president could also consider promoting Deputy Chief of Staff Nancy-Ann DeParle to chief of staff. While not a cabinet position, chief of staff is seen as the second most powerful position in the administration after the presidency itself.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Friday that despite losing Rice as a potential secretary of State, diversity is a priority for the president in selecting his cabinet.

“The president has always believed that, in order to achieve the highest level of excellence in his cabinet, and more broadly in his administration, that diversity is important,” Carney said.

Carney also noted that Rice would remain in the president’s cabinet as ambassador to the UN.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner are all expected to depart early in the president’s second term.

While three women have served as secretary of State in the last two decades, none has ever been in the top spot at either the Pentagon or Treasury Department. A woman has also never served as White House chief of staff.

Democratic political operatives believe the administration has bolstered its record on diversity well on its staff, and won’t feel any particular pressure to find another woman to fill a high-profile slot.

“I think the White House has a lot of women in high places,” said Steve Elmendorf, a lobbyist and former House Democratic leadership aide. “I don’t think Secretary of State, whether or not it’s a woman, really changes the dynamic.”

Elmendorf noted that Obama’s deputy chief of staff and domestic policy director are both women, in addition to senior adviser Valerie Jarrett.

Jim Manley, a former spokesman for Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he was confident the White House would continue to identify new hires that offer diversity.

“The Democratic Party’s an inclusive party, and there’s plenty of well-qualified individuals,” he said. “We’ve got many people that are not necessarily white males who fit that description.”

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Obama won re-election in part on the strength of his showing with women and minority voters, an advantage that Republicans are actively looking to chip away at going forward.

“Republicans have gotten the message after the election they’d like to have a more diverse political representation,” said Ron Bonjean, a Republican political strategist. “The president is also aware he needs to try to keep that brand, and so if you end up having an all-white, male cabinet, then you lose the brand.”

For both the Pentagon and Treasury jobs, there are female candidates on the short list, but none are considered favorites.

With Rice out, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) is the clear frontrunner to succeed Clinton. 

CNN and ABC reported Saturday night that Obama had decided to tap Kerry for State, and that an announcement could come as early as this week. 

There were also reports just ahead of the Rice news Thursday that former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) is the frontrunner at Defense, and White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew is the leading candidate at Treasury.

Flournoy has long been seen as a potential successor to Panetta. She was the highest-ranking woman as the No. 3 at the Defense Department, and has already broken through glass ceilings at the Pentagon.

Her stock has fallen in recent weeks, however, as Hagel’s has risen.

“Obviously if you’re trying to have a diverse cabinet, and you were going to put a woman in one job and now you can’t, then yeah you would take a look at another job,” said Larry Korb, a former Pentagon official and defense analyst at the Center for American Progress. “But everything I hear, Hagel has been vetted.”

For the Treasury post , Lew is widely thought to be next in line to replace Geithner. But another name reportedly in the mix is Lael Brainerd, currently the Treasury’s under secretary for international affairs. The new landscape following Rice's decision may mean she gets a closer look.

“I haven’t heard that, but it makes sense,” said one financial industry representative.

If Obama does decide to stick with Hagel and Lew for his cabinet choices, another option would be to pick a woman to be his chief of staff.

DeParle would be the likeliest choice, as she currently serves in the White House as deputy chief of staff for policy and directed the White House office of health reform.

Another option could be Alyssa Mastromonaco, the White House deputy chief of staff for operations.