Obama "slights" the South in picking his team

Regional rivalries may no longer count, especially in tough times like these.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
It hasn't gone without notice in the South that Obama is the first president in a generation to overlook Dixie to build his White House team.

With about a third of the US population, the American South has established itself as an economic and political juggernaut.

But it’s not gone without notice here that President-elect Obama is the first president in a generation to look beyond Dixie to build his White House brain trust.

Is the dearth of dyed-in-the-cotton Southerners from the Obama cabinet really an out-and-out snub? Or is it simply a reflection of Mr. Obama’s own social circle – his team includes seven Ivy Leaguers and four New Yorkers – and the political reality that regional rivalries no longer matter as much?

Either way, the implications could be significant for the future of the Democrats’ 50-state strategy and the stature of the South on the national stage.

“It is an interesting shift,” says Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, in an e-mail. “Republican rule has had a strong Southern accent going back to the Republican takeover [of Congress] in 1994, and the defeat of that whole regime has resulted in a major regional power shift.”

To be sure, the speed at which Obama named the cabinet – drawn primarily from New England, the Midwest, and the West – indicates to many observers a deliberate political strategy.

Obama made gains for his party in the South, winning in North Carolina and Virginia. But Democratic hopes may more easily be solidified in the

Midwest and West, giving rise to picks like new Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano of Arizona or incoming Agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack of Iowa over someone like Georgia Rep. Sanford Bishop Jr., who was eyed, but passed over, as the nation’s farm boss.

What’s more, despite well-qualified Southern figures like Rep. Jim Clyburn (D) of South Carolina or former South Carolina schools chief Inez Tenenbaum, the South’s Democratic political farm team has been decimated by years of Republican rule in the region, argues Dan Carter, a retired political science professor in Pisgah Forest, N.C.

Obama’s own roots a factor

More likely, though, Obama’s cabinet picks were a result of his “constitual” approach in the campaign as well as the political realities of an Ivy League-educated Midwestern politician, says Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R) of Georgia.

“Bush took a lot of people from Texas, so this is not all that unusual,” says Representative Westmoreland. “He’s probably doing more political paybacks with [cabinet picks] than worrying about what different areas of the country are being represented.”

Obama transition team officials declined to discuss the makeup of the cabinet on the record, though it’s clear they don’t see the new brain trust as a Yankee cabinet.

Ron Kirk (former Dallas mayor named to be US trade representative), holdover Defense Secretary Bob Gates, Lisa Jackson (a New Orleans native nominated to head the Environmental Protection Agency), and Secretary of State nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton all have ties to the South. Indeed, the White House’s official accent will be the Alabama drawl of new Press Secretary Robert Gibbs of Auburn, Ala., whom Obama once called his “one-man Southern focus group.”

But as with Ms. Clinton, now representing New York (home to the Yankees baseball club), those bona fides hardly represent the core white evangelical constituencies that largely turned away from Obama in the election. Half of the 22 states that voted for John McCain were in the South.

Still, “this is one of the most diverse Cabinets and White House staffs of all time,” a statement from the transition team argues. “[Obama] is looking for the best people first and foremost to serve the American people.” Ouch, says Jack Kingston, the Republican congressman from Savannah, Ga. “This is the first time you can say, ‘Look, where is the South in this administration?’ ”

Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson both drew on Southern ideas and personalities, first to solve the economic problems of the Great Depression, then to overcome Jim Crow racial discrimination in the South. Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton brought a hay wagon of Southern personalities to the White House, reflecting his own ideals as well as trying to ensure the party’s inroads into the region.

Obama’s cabinet choices face their own formidable challenges, which could first become evident with the auto industry bailout and the role of unions in the White House’s economic recovery plans. Democratic allegiances to Rust Belt unions will quickly be put to the test, tempered by the fact that America’s manufacturing strength is now largely anchored in Southern right-to-work states. Not having a Southern voice in the cabinet could also mean that the unique needs of Southern industrial centers such as Columbia, S.C., where unemployment could soon reach 14 percent, may be underrepresented in the White House.

Union influence vs. open-shop South

“You can see the political shift going to more Northeastern or Western constituencies, where unions do have more of a foothold than the more open-shop policies and labor laws of Southern regions,” says Todd Shaw, a political scientist at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.

To be sure, the free-market states’ rights ideals that many blame for the current economic crisis were in part influenced by the rise of the Southern economic powerhouse, including the fraud-tainted Sun Belt real estate market. What’s more, US military power and materiel are also largely situated below the Mason-Dixon line.

It’s hard not to read geographical discrimination into the new White House brain trust, critics like Republican Congressman Kingston say. But the frustration of frozen-out Southerners may not amount to much of a political threat to the incoming Democratic agenda, says political scientist Carter. “If Obama thought it was a real danger, he probably would have made a greater effort to do so.”

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