Two women receive Cabinet nominations

President Obama on Monday nominated two women to his second-term Cabinet, appointments that could quell criticism about a lack of diversity in the top positions of his administration. 

Obama announced Sylvia Mathews Burwell as his pick to lead the Office of Management and Budget. Burwell, a former member of the Clinton administration and the current head of the Wal-Mart Foundation, would be at the center of Washington’s bitter budget battles at the OMB and play a central role in the implementation of the sequester and future budget cuts.

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The president also tabbed Gina McCarthy to head the Environmental Protection Agency. 

A veteran of the EPA’s Air and Radiation Department, McCarthy is expected to spearhead new and controversial regulations dealing with coal power plants. The president has repeatedly called climate change a top priority of his second term, and McCarthy — a former member of 2012 GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s gubernatorial Cabinet — will likely be the public face of his regulatory efforts.

Civil-rights groups say the president’s choices still lack some of the racial diversity they had hoped to see in a second-term Cabinet. They expressed disappointment that Hispanics and blacks have not earned nominations to more and higher-profile positions.

Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington Bureau, said his organization “would certainly love to see even more diversity as we move to fill positions.”

But Shelton also defended the Obama administration, saying that while the second-term nominations had been primarily white, that was partially attributable to “the trick of the draw.”

“If you put it in the context of the overall grouping of administrative appointees from Cabinet level down to assistant and associate levels, the judiciary and even diplomatic corps ... what we have is a very diverse administration,” Shelton said.

The appointments of Burwell and McCarthy follow widespread criticism triggered by the president’s decision to appoint white men to head the Treasury, Defense and State departments. Those selections came amid the departures of three high-profile women — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.

Black and Hispanic organizations have indicated that they are also eager to see high-profile appointments of African-Americans and Hispanics.

“We really believe that there’s so many Latinos, qualified Latinos, that want to serve this country in a variety of ways and particularly in the administration,” said Rafael Collazo, the director of political campaigns for The National Council of La Raza.

Collazo said his organization had told the White House it hoped to see at least three high-profile Hispanic appointments in Obama’s second term.

“We continually shared our concerns with the administration and will continue to do so, that we want to see diversity ... and there are a myriad of Latinos that could serve the administration,” Collazo said.

Burwell and McCarthy join Interior Secretary nominee Sally Jewell as women nominated to serve in Obama’s second-term Cabinet.

Half of the Cabinet’s four black members and both of its Hispanic members have left or announced they are leaving.

Earlier this year, Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) decried the incoming Cabinet’s apparent lack of diversity as “embarrassing as hell” during an interview with MSNBC.

Obama himself said the criticism was premature, pledging that his emphasis on creating a more diverse Cabinet would reveal itself in subsequent picks.

“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,” Obama said in January. “Until you’ve seen what my overall team looks like, it’s premature to assume that somehow we’re going backwards. We’re not going backwards, we’re going forward.”

Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University, said the president’s efforts to satisfy the demands of civil rights groups were hindered by both a shorter bench in his second term and a natural desire to promote those already working in the administration.

“Obama’s first instinct is to replace with people already close by — [such as] Jack Lew to Treasury — and now he’s filling out the end of the table Cabinet positions ... and they are less well-known than many of the people called on in the first-term Cabinet,” Jillson said.

The president has five openings remaining in his Cabinet, in the departments of Commerce, Labor and Transportation, as well as the Small Business Administration and for U.S. Trade Representative. Jeffrey Zients, acting director of the OMB, is the favorite to head the the small-business agency — further reducing the number of remaining opportunities for the president to diversify his Cabinet.

White House officials would not comment Monday on the role diversity played in the president’s selection, although press secretary Jay Carney has pointed to the president’s appointment of female Supreme Court justices and the ongoing roles of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice in defending his diversity bona fides.

“Having diversity increases the excellence of the pool of advisers around you, the pool of the staff that you have here,” Carney told reporters earlier this year. “And I think that’s been demonstrated by the degree of talent that he has around him now and has had around him in the first term, and I think it will be true in the second term.”

Introducing Burwell, the deputy director of the OMB during the Clinton administration, Obama stressed her immigrant roots and said her mission would be organizing the federal budget around best helping poor and middle-class families.

“Sylvia knows her way around a budget,” Obama said. “But as the granddaughter of Greek immigrants, she also understands that our goal when we put together a budget is not just to make the numbers add up. Our goal is also to reignite the true engine of economic growth in this country, and that is a strong and growing middle class, to offer ladders of opportunity for anybody willing to climb them.”