As President Obama works to shape his second-term team, the last thing he needs is criticism about the insularity and lack of diversity among the tippy-top players. But earlier this month, when The New York Times ran a front-page photo showing a December Oval Office meeting between the POTUS and 11 senior staffers—10 men plus a tiny glimpse of senior adviser Valerie Jarrett’s leg—it was hard not to wonder: where are the women? It was arguably even harder, however, to resist rolling one’s eyes when the administration pushed back with one of the lamest rebuttals in modern politics.
As ever with such critiques, it fell to Jarrett, chief keeper of the Obama brand, to play defense. Addressing the oft-heard complaint that White House women get cut out of both key meetings and presidential playtime, she told Politico, “I don’t play golf. I don’t play basketball. I don’t really like cards ... I don’t think anybody questions whether or not I have a role to play here. And so I think it is irrelevant whether the president wants to do that in some of his free time. What’s really important is, when we have something to say, does he listen to us? And he does.”
As for POTUS’s view of women in general, she asserted, “The reality is that this president has been surrounded by strong women his entire life.”
Somebody at the White House must have dug that line, because Jarrett trotted it out again during an Inauguration Day appearance on CNN: “Look, the president has been surrounded by strong women throughout his entire life. Raised by a single mom, lived for a while with his grandmother, who was a great role model for him.” And let us not forget the first lady, whom Jarrett praised as “a very competent wife.”
Oy. The surrounded-by-strong-women rejoinder? Seriously? I realize the White House has been dealing with these complaints for a while now, but have things deteriorated so that they need to go with that tired line—a line so meaningless and overused that, at this point, it almost serves to underscore the charge it aims to rebut?
This is not to suggest Jarrett’s basic statement isn’t true: there’s no question Obama has had some kick-ass women in his life. But just because a pol had a tough mother or sister or grandma or wife doesn’t mean he’ll be committed to, much less comfortable with, them at the office. Look at Bill Clinton: pretty much his entire life has been overseen by broad-shouldered babes (first Virginia, then Hillary), but his White House wasn’t exactly an oasis of gender equality. Or how about Dick Cheney? It’s hard to think of a guy with a tougher wife, not to mention daughters. But it’s not like gals held much sway in his shadowy corner of the West Wing. Hell, I’ve had bosses with amazing women in their personal lives who were nonetheless so uncomfortable with female staffers that they needed fistfuls of Xanax to get through a meeting with one of us. Who knows why? Maybe being surrounded by so many strong women at home make some men hunger for a workplace where they can sit around talking trash with their buds.
No matter: at some point along the political trail, some clever spin doctor determined that making much ado about the feisty women in a pol’s private world could gain him public Brownie points. So now everybody wants to jump on the bandwagon. (Recent case: in my reporting on Joe Biden this month, pollster Celinda Lake whipped out the surrounded-by-strong-women observation about the VPOTUS apropos of absolutely nothing.)
Certainly, President George W. Bush’s supporters liked to make this exact observation about him. In a 2003 Q&A for Ladies’ Home Journal, Peggy Noonan pitched Bush this softball: “You have a strong mom, a strong wife, Karen Hughes, Condi Rice ... Why do you like strong women so much?” Message: Now, now, America. Just because the president will pick Supreme Court justices who oppose reproductive rights doesn’t mean he doesn’t champion women. After all, look how badass his mama is!
The surrounded-by-strong-women card is, in fact, increasingly played whenever a pol or his party is accused of women-unfriendliness. Last fall, when Republican Scott Brown found his Senate reelection campaign against Elizabeth Warren in trouble, he cranked up the look-at-my-remarkable-wife-and-daughters message, at one point crowing about having long been surrounded by “strong-willed women.” (Of course, that line would have gone farther if, when asked what he’d learned from those women, Brown hadn’t responded, “How to cook.”)
Perhaps most delightfully, we have Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell—the guy whose enthusiasm for curtailing abortion access helped introduce Americans to the phrase “transvaginal ultrasound.” McDonnell’s 2009 campaign against Creigh Deeds hit a hiccup when it was revealed that, in his 1989 college thesis, McDonnell had called feminists and working women “detrimental” to families. Called on the carpet, McDonnell and his supporters pointed to the candidate’s independent daughters—one of whom served in Iraq—as proof that he could not possibly be against women’s rights. Presumably, all those Virginia women now watching their governor do things like approve draconian new regulations aimed at shuttering the state’s abortion clinics feel ever so much better knowing he fathered great daughters.
Jarrett must find it frustrating to once more have to defend her friend and boss from criticism that his White House is a not-so-chick-friendly boys’ club—a charge that must chafe all the more considering the antiwoman nuttiness on display of late in the GOP. But fair or not, a president from a party not overwhelmingly dominated by old white guys is going to face higher expectations in the diversity department. And if the surrounded-by-strong-women dodge is the best the White House can come up with, it may be time for Obama to suck it up and start ordering his own binders full of women.