What Asian Americans will be in Obama's Cabinet?

November 21, 2008

Heh, okay, that was cheesy. But for people wondering what our first president of color is going to do for communities of hue, his transition team selections did bode well.

He was careful to select a number of Asian Americans for the transition team, including three leading figures, and, although that didn't come off without controversy, the controversy was entirely within the Asian American community itself. (And, might I add, typical of the sorts of political rivalries largely immigrant communities fail to leave behind them when they emigrate.)

But, as this commentator points out, Obama's telecom policy has been advanced (and well staffed) from the beginning, so perhaps the number of Indian Americans on the transition team is less about civil rights policy and more about tech development. Of course, of the four Indian Americans currently on the transition team, only Sonal Shah has anything directly to do with tech. But she IS heading up his tech policy, and I'm not being silly or stereotyping when I suggest that Obama's tech and science savvy (not to mention any emphasis on entrepreneurship) could offer more Asian Americans opportunities in his administration.

So the big question on everyone's mind right now is: will he do as well for people of color in appointing his cabinet?

So far, in a word: no.

A cabinet is different from a transition team and -- although I have no doubt Obama's presidency will lead to a number of younger people of color getting on-the-job-training, as it were, in executive administration -- let's remember that Obama is a relative newbie, and the political capital his amazing campaign and win have built up can be quickly spent. He needs to put together a coalition of the powerful, which is why, so far, most of the names thrown around have been white and male.

(Hillary, of course, has already taken the Secretary of State job, but the last two presidencies have turned that position into a stunt casting. Here's hoping Hillary is more the Albright than the Rice model.)

The only Asian American name that has even come up so far is Chris Lu, and -- let's be clear -- not for an actual Cabinet position. Lu, Obama's Transition Team Director and former Harvard classmate, will be his "Cabinet Secretary", which is a White House Staff position. The definition of this position ("liaison between the White House and the heads of executive departments" according to his Wikipedia page) seems to be ... well, vague, and I'm not finding that position in the last three presidents' staffs. Is it a sinecure? Is it an opportunity for Obama to put a trusted friend in a buffer position? Is Obama going to have a padded cabinet? What gives?

Or perhaps all the rumors of Obama appointing a "Cabinet of Rivals," i.e. putting his political rivals to work, are true. Perhaps this is one of his ways of uniting, but having learned the lessons of history, he's also putting someone in place to referee the inevitable fights. Who knows?

The big game in town right now is speculation along the lines of wish-fulfillment. New American Media engages in a little wishing of its own in this speculative article about potential Asian American appointees. The article is essentially a run down, via Dale Minami and Mike Honda, of the most politically powerful Asian Americans in government, which is not the same thing as an acute analysis of what Asian Americans have an ACTUAL CHANCE of getting big jobs.

But we do find out here that Mike Honda has put his hat in the ring for Education Secretary (he doesn't think he has much of a chance). And of course, there's some speculation as to what Obama will do with Norman Mineta ... because SOMETHING must be done with Norman Mineta; he's become a presidential tradition. Minami and Honda want him for ambassador to Japan -- him or Daniel Inouye. Wish fulfillment, or a new model of retirement for old JA officeholders? You decide!

For Defense Secretary NAM likes Gens. Shinseki and Taguba -- but that's simply because they were outspoken in criticism and action against Bush's Iraq policy. Minami and Honda sounded lukewarm on the prospect, and the mainstream buzz doesn't even acknowledge their existence. The main question now is if Obama will keep Gates on for a year or so -- and then which white, male politicians have the most Defense committee experience.

A more realistic possibility:

Illinois Veterans Affairs Director Tammy Duckworth may be up for two
political appointments tied to Obama: the president-elect’s Senate seat
as well as the head of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Interestingly enough, this is a key position at the moment, with the anger at Bush's failed Iraq War policy stirred further by anger at Bush's signal failure to provide for the tens of thousands of Iraq War veterans who have already come home. Ironically, if the hapa Duckworth does a good job, she'll settle down criticism of the Veteran's Administration and actually make her position less important. This is definitely one to watch.

The article goes on to name a number of lesser-known APAs who may very well be appointed to lesser-known positions. Minami does believe that APA participation in the election, Obama's stated commitment to diversity, and his apparent awareness of the existence of APAs (good for him! We're here! We're not all engineers! Get used to it!), bode well for APA representation in the lower staff positions.

There's also been some whispers of an ambassadorship to China for Gary Locke, although Locke himself denies that he's talked to the Obama camp at all. It seems he'd be amenable. And ain't that the case for pretty much all the pretty Asian Americans? If you can't be Obama, join him.




Good stuff, Asians delivered for Obama I hope he keeps his promise. The Hispanic community put pressure on him to get a latino in his cabinet, shortly after, Bill Richardson was the premier candidate for Sec of Commerce, so hey, BARK
The cabinet secretary position on the white house staff has been there for many years. For example, Thurgood Marshall, Jr. served in that positon underon Clinton.do your research!
thanks for the tip, hillrat! now i'm able to find plenty of mentions of marshall jr. as cabinet secretary, but still no real definition of the job (beyond what was stated above) or discussion of its importance.it's starting to look less and less ... um, interesting, this position. any insights?
The cabinet secretary job is a very high-level job. This is a major appointment for an Asian American. Here's how Marc Ambinder, the Atlantic's political commentator, described it:"Chris Lu, the executive director of the transition, will be cabinet secretary, where he'll manage the White House's relationship with agencies and Cabinet Secretaries. It's another vital behind-the-scenes job that's usually a stepping stone to an even more important frontline job. When agency heads have a problem, or when the White House has a problem with an agency head, Mr. Lu will be the first person who's called, or calls. Lu is a Harvard Law School classmate of Sen. Obama's."
The article mentioned in New America Media is really annoying.The only mention of South Asians in this article is from Dale Minami. You'd think the writer would be less lazy (or try to expand from the typical "South Asians are APAs too?" that West Coasters always seem to fall into) and actually name a few of these people, or even ask Dale Minami who he's talking about. Terrible journalism.
this whole thing is SO interesting. i went to the white house website before and looked into the white house staff and didn't see anything of the sort.but like a dumbass, i didn't search on "cabinet secretary." i just did that now and came up with this: http://www.whitehouse.gov/government/montgomery-bio.htmlturns out, brian montgomery was only cabinet secretary until 2005. i also searched through every single listing of bush's appointments and there's nothing up there now for "cabinet secretary." it's interesting that montgomery was "deputy assistant to the president AND cabinet secretary," as if the one position wasn't enough to keep someone employed full time. and for the life of me, i can't find anyone with that title in the bush administration NOW.seems like liaison between bush and the various entities in the cabinet wasn't a priority for the bush administration. i wonder if it really will be for the obama admin, although it's clear that he's going to restructure roles a lot.
Obama better elected a good portion of Asian Pacific representative in his high level positions. Our community had come forward to support him in historic level. If not, he will be taken off the list.
thanks for the tip, zack!
>So far, in a word: no.Could be he's caught wind of asian americans viewing asian appointments as a means to serve their own group interests, and not neceessarily national interests, which serve everyone.
oh yes, those evil asian american special interests trying to take over the world again! gosh darn us!
Great article. I just wrote a Huffington Post piece on APA appointments that links to your article: http://www.aaa-fund.com/?p=1240. When I asked about APA appointments to Obama's Cabinet, Transition Team member Chris Lu responded that Obama has a "strong interest" in appointing an Asian American: http://www.aaa-fund.com/?p=1224.The squeaky wheel gets the grease. We must all raise our voices so that the Asian American community gets the political respect it deserves.
thanks for the shout out, gautam! i couldn't agree more.
This article is insulting a ridiculous. How dare the writer take Norman Mineta so lightly. This is disrespectful on so many levels. I am appalled that Hyphen has chosen such immature freelance writers. I know you don't pay any of your writer, so this is what you get for free labor--but ask for some interns who do some quality work.
I just hope that he allows Gen. Eric Shinseki to serve in his administration. The man is a great American and I have proudly served with him.
Yes, it looks like Japanese American General Shiniseki, Romsfield arch enemy will get the nod.Whats up with anonymous?http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20081207/ap_on_go_ca_st_pe/obama_veterans_affairs
Did anyone get the story on the first Vietnamese of Asian elected to congress? I think his name is clao out of Louisiana. He took William jefferson seat.
thanks, anonymous. there'll be more in the future.
More good news, reknowned physicist and Nobel peace prize winner Steven chu was selected by barrack Obama as the secretery of energy. He will be very visible in the years to come
Shinseki was selected to head veterans affairs. It would be interesting to see if Obama will pick another Asian. The Bush administration picked two token Asians, although one of them, Elaine Chao, really does not count because she looks out for only WASP interests.