Obama short on Southerners in Cabinet appointments

Published 4:35 pm Friday, December 19, 2008

WASHINGTON — The South may have inched toward Democrats in November, but that progress isn’t showing in President-elect Barack Obama’s Cabinet selections.

Obama hasn’t nominated a single Southerner among his 15 Cabinet secretaries. So far, Obama’s only pick from the region is a borderline Southerner in a relatively low-profile position: former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk for U.S. trade representative.

The disparity isn’t an accident — critics already are calling it a snub — and that perception could slow the pace of recent electoral gains Democrats have made below the Mason-Dixon line.

“Southerners need not apply,” said Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga. “It’s hard to believe that there wasn’t anybody qualified for something from the South.”

The South accounted for nearly half of the 22 states Obama lost to Republican John McCain on Election Day. Still, Obama won surprise victories in North Carolina and Virginia. Democrats also won key congressional races in other Southern states, including Alabama and Mississippi, renewing hopes that the party can spread its success if it pays closer attention to the region.

Obama’s most recent Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton of Arkansas, did that in part by littering his Cabinet with fellow Southerners and mobilizing them to promote the party’s agenda in the region.

Obama’s appointments could leave him without a high-profile Southern surrogate, not just for his own re-election bid but also the midterm elections in 2010, which could prove critical for his agenda.

Dan Carter, a political historian at the University of South Carolina, said the shortage of Southerners among top White House aides is highly unusual and could invite criticism. Presidents dating back to at least Dwight Eisenhower have had at least one Cabinet secretary from the South.

“I’m sure some people will say that despite all the talk of trying to appeal to the South and running a 50-state strategy, (Obama’s) certainly not rewarding it,” Carter said.

Instead, Carter said, Obama is looking to areas where his party has greater potential, such as the West, which is seen as an emerging Democratic stronghold.

Among Obama’s more high-profile choices, he has picked Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano to run the Department of Homeland Security, Sen. Ken Salazar of Colorado for Interior, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson for Commerce.

Most of his other nominees have come from the Democrat-rich Northeast, with a couple from his home state of Illinois.

Obama officials declined to directly discuss the dearth of Southerners among his top aides, reiterating statements that Obama’s staff will be one of the most diverse and qualified in history.

They did point out that one very prominent Southern voice in the administration will be his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, an Alabama native who has worked for several Southern Democrats on Capitol Hill.

They also note that New Jersey environmental chief Lisa Jackson, Obama’s choice to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, grew up in New Orleans. But she has arguably lost her Southern identity — at least publicly — by spending much of her career in New Jersey and New York.

Then there’s Hillary Rodham Clinton, Obama’s pick for secretary of state, who could be considered Southern thanks to her roots as former first lady of Arkansas. But she grew up in Illinois and probably relinquished any Southern credibility by making New York her adopted home.

Robert Gates, President Bush’s defense secretary who Obama is keeping on board, also lived in Texas recently. But he has mostly worked in Washington and is a native Midwesterner who now calls the Pacific Northwest home.

“It’ll be interesting,” Kingston said. “Southern Democrats have been afraid to have (Democratic House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi come down and campaign for them. I’ll be interested to see if they’ll have Obama come down, but a good way to get around that would be to have his secretary of energy or secretary of agriculture come down and say he’s a local boy … and they won’t be able to do that.”