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Obama's Woman Problem Is A Problem Of His Own Making

President Obama holds a news conference Monday in the East Room of the White House.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais
President Obama holds a news conference Monday in the East Room of the White House.

Does President Obama have a problem with women?

On the level of appearances, he certainly does. Which is why at his Monday news conference, he found himself responding to criticisms about the lack of diversity in his picks so far for his second-term Cabinet — State, Treasury, Defense and CIA — who have all been white men.

Those picks have only contributed to a long-standing perception that Obama is, at the very least, somewhat tone-deaf when it comes to the role of women in his administration. And in politics, perception is often reality.

The president, of course, disagrees with this perception. As far as he is concerned, he's done pretty well on the women issue. Referring to Hillary Clinton, his departing secretary of state, and other women who've held key first-term posts, he said:

"So if you think about my first four years, the person who probably had the most influence on my foreign policy was a woman. The people who were in charge of moving forward my most important domestic initiative, health care, were women.

"The person in charge of our homeland security was a woman. My two appointments to the Supreme Court were women. And 50 percent of my White House staff were women. So I think people should expect that that record will be built upon during the next four years.

"Now, what, I've made four appointments so far? And one woman, admittedly a high-profile one, is leaving the — has already left the administration, and I have made a replacement.

"But I would just suggest that everybody kind of wait until they've seen all my appointments, who's in the White House staff and who's in my Cabinet, before they rush to judgment."

As the president should know by now, rushing to judgment is a long Washington pastime. Just ask Shirley Sherrod, another woman who once worked in his administration. So the president's admonition isn't likely to slow that train down one bit.

It wouldn't be surprising if the president found the criticism about diversity in his administration that has shown up in the news media particularly galling. After all, he is the president who signed into law the Lilly Ledbetter Act to make it easier for women to sue in employment discrimination cases. He's also the president whose administration promulgated the rule requiring employers to cover birth control as part of their health insurance plans.

No doubt these policy stances and Obama's personal story helped the president achieve his 11-percentage-point advantage with women over Republican Mitt Romney in November and win a second term.

But that doesn't negate complaints that have repeatedly surfaced from women in the administration about their treatment in the Obama White House.

In his book "Confidence Men," about the early Obama administration, Ron Suskind wrote of how senior-level women in the White House complained about lacking the access to the president that their male colleagues had and of how the senior male advisers supposedly ran roughshod over them in West Wing policy debates.

It all appeared a continuation of the 2008 campaign, where Obama seemed most comfortable with the guys on his team like David Axelrod, David Plouffe and Robert Gibbs.

Certain parts of the White House operation during the first term lacked diversity to such a degree, it became clear to White House decision-makers that they might want to hold off on hiring more white males to get more women and people of color in the door. Ironic given that the president is an African American.

Obama's all-male golf outings came in for so much criticism that the White House once felt compelled to stage what was essentially a photo op of a female aide carrying a golf bag to show that, yes, the president did have a female golf partner, at least that day.

Matters got so bad during Obama's first year in the White House, a dinner even had to be arranged at the executive mansion so female aides could air their complaints and concerns directly to the president.

You don't hold a dinner like that without some serious problems you're trying to address.

But judging from the less-than-optimal way the president has handled the unveiling of his second-term Cabinet, at least when it comes to gender issues, the dinner might not have had its intended effect on the president.

Indeed, given the concerns that have been expressed both inside and outside the White House about the roles of senior women in the president's circle, it's a bit of a head scratcher that he didn't do more to spare himself headaches by rolling out his second-term Cabinet with more of an eye on diversity at the front end.

In his own defense, Obama might say that's precisely what he tried to do through the ill-fated test of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice's ability to be confirmed as secretary of state. But if that was the plan, it was clearly a mistake to pin hopes for a big diversity dividend on a controversial official whose chances of confirmation were dubious.

On Monday, Obama essentially told those so far disappointed to trust him to do the right thing. And many will, because, what alternative do they have?

But the controversy is a self-inflicted wound which, like most, was avoidable.

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Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.