WASHINGTON — President Biden has sought to live up to his campaign promise of an administration that reflects America’s diversity with a slew of historic appointments: the first Black vice president, a Cabinet more diverse than his predecessors’, the first Black woman on the Supreme Court.
But a new analysis of Biden’s senior aides from an independent think tank concludes that the president has not done enough to ensure there is sufficient Black representation in key White House jobs that are less visible to the public but whose holders often have an outsize influence on policy.
The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which is devoted to issues related to Black equity, examined the White House’s 139 commissioned officer positions — the most senior roles — and found that a total of 15, or roughly 11%, were held by Black staffers. In a report released Monday, obtained by The Washington Post before publication, the think tank faulted Biden, noting that Black voters made up 22% of his support in 2020.
The study credits Biden for a staff and administration that is more diverse than his predecessors’, a powerful symbol in a nation often riven by racial and cultural differences. But that diversity begins to thin when it comes to Biden’s most senior advisers, the study concluded, a dynamic similar to that often found in American corporations and other government agencies.
Pride in the visible strides Biden has taken should not overshadow the need to diversify key decision-making roles, said Spencer Overton, a former Obama administration official who is president of the think tank.
“Black folks can’t just be the pawns here. They’ve got to be the knights and the rooks here as well. They’ve got to be a part of the policymaking apparatus,” Overton said. “This can’t be a scenario of, ‘Hey we’ve included some Black folks, and we’re doing better than previous administrations.’ Our goal here is that Black folks are in the room and are really integrated in decision-making processes.”
A White House spokesperson stressed Biden has a historically diverse administration and Cabinet, which includes “a record number of women and leaders of color,” as well as the first Native American Cabinet secretary and openly gay Cabinet secretary.
“Building an administration that looks like America has been a long-standing commitment of the president, and in alignment with the president’s commitment to diversity and pay equity, the White House has taken significant steps toward that commitment,” Erica P. Loewe, the White House’s director of African American media, said in a statement. “We also know we can continue to build on that historic progress, and President Biden and this White House remain committed to ensuring the White House staff reflects the diversity of the country.”
Biden’s defenders say the steps he has taken have been historic and have helped elevate a generation of Black leaders, and he should not be faulted for not making everything perfect.
Of the 24 members of Biden’s Cabinet, seven are Black — from Vice President Harris and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to budget director Shalanda Young. Others are Latino, Native American or Asian American.
But Cabinet officials do not necessarily meet often with Biden, and the Joint Center suggested such prominent examples do not reflect the senior workforce of the White House itself. The commissioned officers — assistants, deputy assistants and special assistants to the president — “frequently convene with the president, influence his way of thinking, make recommendations and advise him on important personnel decisions,” the study says.
They also have benefits and responsibilities that go beyond Oval Office appearances. Their requests are often prioritized elsewhere in the administration, they have the ability to influence other staff members and, after their tenure, they have better prospects for influential positions in the private sector, government and political campaigns.
To close the gap, the study said the administration should appoint Black Americans to open commissioned officer positions. It also recommended disclosing data on employees in the agencies that report to the Executive Office of the President, and it urged the gathering of quarterly demographic data on White House employees.
Biden’s place in history will likely be linked to the Black people he helped elevate — and the Black voters who helped elevate him. He was vice president to the nation’s first Black president and in turn selected a woman of Black and Asian descent to be his vice president. He selected Ketanji Brown Jackson to be the first Black woman on the Supreme Court, and another Black woman, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, is one of the most visible faces of the administration.
But his innermost circle has been largely unchanged since he was inaugurated, drawing on his decades in politics. It includes Chief of Staff Ron Klain and three advisers who have been tethered to Biden for decades: Bruce Reed, Mike Donilon and Steve Ricchetti. All are white men over 60. Anita Dunn, who recently joined the White House as a top adviser, is also white.
Cedric L. Richmond, who was a senior adviser to Biden until he left in May to become a senior adviser for the Democratic National Committee, dismissed the notion that Biden has fallen short on diversity, saying the Black people who work in the White House have significant influence — including most obviously the vice president, who frequently has lunch with Biden.
“The last person in the room is the vice president, and last time I checked, she’s Black,” said Richmond, who also co-chaired Biden’s presidential campaign. “We have a Black vice president who [Biden] picked. No one else picked her. He picked her. We have a Black female on the Supreme Court. We have a whole bunch of things we’re celebrating.”
He added, “There’s always work to do; you can always do better. My pushback and frustration is that we keep acting like the Black people that are there and that are involved don’t have a real say and a real role.”
Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution, has tracked diversity in presidential administrations since the Reagan era. Last year, her analysis found women and racial minorities made up a higher percentage of confirmed appointees under Biden than any of his three predecessors’ administrations.
Among them was Austin, the first Black defense secretary, and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary.
Tenpas said the Joint Center’s study was too narrow and that without the broader context, it does a disservice to Biden’s record on diversity. “From my perspective, diversity in the Biden administration far surpasses his predecessors’ in so many different ways,” she said.
Still, members of the administration were dismayed when nearly two dozen Black staffers had left after a year in the White House, an exodus that garnered the internal nickname “Blaxit.” Harris’s initial chief of staff, chief spokeswoman and communications director were all Black women, and all were gone within 15 months of her inauguration.
Interviews with departed Black staffers — most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to give a frank assessment and avoid sullying relationships — provided a nuanced view of what makes Black staffers leave. Some said there was a lack of good mentoring at the White House, and they worried they would never break into the tight circle surrounding Biden. Beyond that, any job at the apex of politics means grueling hours and high pressure.
But others stressed that a White House job, even if briefly held, is often career- and even life-changing, catapulting people into higher positions in government or the private sector.
Symone Sanders, Harris’s former chief spokesperson, left in November and ultimately became the host of her own show on MSNBC. Vince Evans, who also left the vice president’s staff last year, is now executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus. Trey Baker, a former senior adviser to the president, took a job with Barnes & Thornburg, one of the largest law firms in the country.
“Trey has a broad understanding of government developed through firsthand experience, from his work in local government, his involvement in Congress, and ultimately his service at the White House,” the chair of the firm’s Government Services and Finance Department said in announcing Baker’s hiring.
Whatever the reasons, Overton’s group said Biden has an obligation to fill the top ranks of the White House with more Black people.
Black voters powered Biden to the White House. His final bid for the presidency hung by a tenuous thread after embarrassing finishes in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, and his fortunes changed only after his decisive win in the early nominating contest in South Carolina, a state with a large Black population.
Winning that state helped persuade Democrats that Biden could build the diverse coalition needed to defeat former President Donald Trump. Voters in Georgia, another state with a large Black population, helped hand Biden’s party congressional majorities by voting for two Democratic senators that knotted the upper chamber at 50-50, with Harris holding the tiebreaking vote.
That slim governing majority has enabled Biden to achieve many of the successes he is touting two months before midterms that will serve as a referendum on his time in office.
While many Black Americans still support Biden, some have been disappointed by his inability to pass legislation of particular importance to them: federalizing voting rights, reforming the criminal justice system and overhauling the country’s police departments.
Every administration in recent decades has faced pressure from interest groups to appoint high-level advisers who would represent their interests, and presidents have consistently faced criticism that they have not appointed a diverse enough senior team.
Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black president, faced scrutiny early in his second term from those who believed he did not have enough women in top national security positions. Trump paid little attention to diversity, with only a handful of non-White Cabinet members or senior advisers.
Biden took office after spending 36 years as a U.S. senator from Delaware and eight as Obama’s vice president, and he has long relied on a team of close aides that is largely composed of white men. Tenpas said presidents have traditionally relied on a similar “kitchen Cabinet” that does not always reflect the diversity they have promised.
“That composition is a function of the different jobs they have held over the years in which they’ve acquired those people,” she said. “But those people are not public-facing, and there’s less concern about the composition of that, even though it’s something a president needs.”
But Overton said that if Biden’s aim is true equity, it should start with the offices closest to his.
“This is about having a system that’s truly diverse and multiracial,” Overton said. “That’s the goal we’re going for, and the symbols are important, but that that’s not the full goal. We’re really focused on the substance of representation where different communities are really, truly adequately represented, and at the table and interacting with one another, and moving our country forward.”