Does the Obama Administration Have a ‘Woman Problem’? [Updated]

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Anita Dunn. Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

That's the charge that's been leveled at the White House, thanks to the publication of Ron Suskind's book Confidence Man. Just today, when deputy communications director Jen Psaki stepped down to take a new job, she had to answer a set of questions about whether the administration's gender dynamics had anything to do with it.

“The big secret is there is an incredible bond between the senior women in the White House,” she told reporters. “These are women who I have had the pleasure of getting to know and across the board they see themselves as policy makers, communicators and problem solvers first — but they also take pride in being women in high pressure, high demand and high stakes jobs.”

But the Washington Post reports, several high-level women complained directly to the president in 2009 that they had less access to the president than top male advisors, many of whom had worked on the campaign. At the urging of Valerie Jarrett, the president then made a conscious effort to promote more women to senior roles. But at least as Suskind tells it, it was those male advisors and their de facto boys' club (Larry Summers, Rahm Emanuel, et al.), more than the president himself, that created the problem. Much of the book's grist on the gender-balance question comes from a conversation with former communications director Anita Dunn — which Dunn says Suskind quoted out of context, removing a bit about Obama's personal attitude that ameliorated her harsh words, at least when it comes to the president. Suskind let the Post listen to his tape:


“I remember once I told Valerie that, I said if it weren’t for the president, this place would be in court for a hostile workplace,” Dunn is heard telling Suskind. “Because it actually fit all of the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace to women.”

Summers, no stranger to feminist ire, figures prominently in the critique. Suskind quoted Christina Romer, who chaired the Council of Economic Affairs saying "I felt like a piece of meat," after Summers ignored her in a meeting. Late last week, she echoed Dunn in dialing back her criticism. "What was different in the Obama administration is that there were so many women in important positions and, when problems arose, the president worked hard to fix them," said Romer on Friday. "I felt respected, included and useful to the team."

But privately, Romer apparently told the president that while he might not have the same problems working with women that Emanuel and Summers apparently did, he was the guy who'd hired them — it reflected on his management style, too. This might have been more of a problem in the early days of the administration than its current iteration, but it's not as if policy and precedent staked out then aren't still in play.

That's exactly the perception the White House is working hard to combat: Those Dunn and Romer walkbacks probably weren't entirely unprompted. As Chris Cillizza writes in the Washington Post, women voters are incredibly important to Obama's reelection hopes. Obama probably won't have a "woman problem" at the polls, when it comes down to it — he's still running about ten points ahead with them than with men — but this storyline isn't one the campaign is especially keen to have out there, suffice it to say.

Perhaps this is an obvious point to state, but these are superlatively accomplished women who had risen to the very top of their fields. It's nice that, per Psaki, these women were able to form a bond, but — as they say on reality television — they aren't there to make friends. This probably wasn't the first room they'd been in where there were more men than women. This also probably wasn't the first time these women had felt slighted, even if only implicitly, on account of their gender, so I'd also imagine that it took a whole hell of a lot of frustration to get them to voice it. I'd wager a little further that it probably wasn't just because of bruised feelings or careerism: They weren't hired as decoration, and I'm inclined to believe that Dunn, Jarret, and co. probably felt very strongly that it wasn't great for policy, not just politics, to have a few overbearing people (men OR women) running the show.

In early Obama White House, female staffers felt frozen out [WP]