My favorite photo of the day was this AP photo of President Obama, Susan Rice, and Samantha Power strolling arm in arm, smiling, after leaving yesterday’s Rose Garden announcement that the president had selected Rice as his national security adviser, and nominated Power to be the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.
Regardless of how you feel about Barack Obama’s politics, policies, or effectiveness in The White House—he is unafraid of and comfortable around strong women. Rice is no shrinking violet, nor is Power, and these women will have real power in The White House—Rice will brief the president every day about all things national security, and Power’s job has Cabinet rank.
Hillary Clinton, Obama’s fierce rival for the Democratic nomination for president in 2008 he brought into his Cabinet and gave her wide latitude as Secretary of State. Janet Napolitano, Homeland Security secretary, Kathleen Sebelius at Health and Human Services, Lisa Jackson, the former head of EPA,—none is exactly demure.
Nor is Michelle Obama, or Valerie Jarrett, White House senior adviser. As David Maraniss of The Post and others have written, the practically fatherless Obama has been motivated and inspired by strong women throughout his life, including his restless, idealistic world-traveling mother and always-present, and bread-winning grandmother.
Bill Clinton was similarly comfortable around strong women, raised as he was mostly by his mother. I think women in this country sense this about both men, and it is one of the reasons, in addition to politics and policies, why they both did so well among women voters. This is who Barack Obama is; he’s comfortable enough in his own skin to feel unchallenged by forceful women.
Democrats have criticized Obama for not having enough women in his Cabinet and for a sometimes macho atmosphere harmful to women working in the White House. There is some truth to this.
But I think the nominations of Rice and Power signal a continuing commitment to the presence of strong women in key positions in the White House, and to human rights as a component of Obama’s foreign policy. It remains to be seen whether Rice and Power will push the White House toward more activism in Syria, as they did in Libya. Obama is keenly aware of Americans’ fatigue with wars in Muslim countries, and I think he is right in that impulse, but Syria is ugly, getting uglier, and too many innocents have died.
Neither Rice nor Power breaks down any new parts of the glass ceiling of government. But they’ll do their part s in moving the country toward the day when the final shards will be cleared. There’s not that much left to shatter, but these final casements are old, with too many coats of paint and winters of being stuck in place. They’ll be resistant: the presidency and vice presidency; the heads of Defense and Treasury; the Joint Chiefs; Chief Justice of the Supreme Court; and the Federal Reserve Chairman.
I, for one, look forward to the day when those panes are tossed aside in favor of clarity and vision, regardless of gender.