Announcing Bill Richardson as Commerce Secretary today, Barack Obama was asked by a reporter whether the appointment was merely a consolation prize for the Latino community that supported his candidacy.
"Many were expecting or hoping that Bill Richardson was going to be Secretary of State," said the reporter, a Latino-American himself.
"Commerce Secretary is a pretty good job," said Obama. "It is a member of my key economic team that is going to be dealing with the most significant issue that America faces right now, which is how do we put Americans back to work to rejuvenate the economy. Bill Richardson was selected because he is the best person for that job and is going to be outstanding in helping me strategize on how we rebuild America."
"The notion that, somehow, the Commerce Secretary is not going to be central to everything we do, is fundamentally mistaken," Obama added. "With respect to Latino Cabinet members, I have appointed half of my Cabinet so far. And when people look back and see the entire slate, what they will say is, not only in terms of my Cabinet but in terms of my White House staff, people are going to say, 'this is one of the most diverse Cabinets and White House staffs of all time. More importantly, they are going to say these are people of outstanding qualifications and excellence."
This is one of those tricky issues that every incoming president must face. Does every constituent group who voted in droves for Obama deserve a proper representation in his Cabinet? Or is the president allowed to appoint individuals based on his own set of standards?
To a large extent, Obama has managed to walk the tightrope, tapping minorities and female officials for many of high-profile positions: Secretary of State, Homeland Security, UN Ambassador, and Attorney General (not to mention White House Communications Director and Political Director).
But in a strictly political sense, appeasing the Latino community is a far more delicate proposition for the president-elect. Latinos are the fastest growing voting constituency in the United States -- and the change in their political preferences from 2004 to 2008 was, to put it mildly, remarkable. The Republican Party -- as Karl Rove argued at a forum in New York Tuesday night -- is essentially doomed if they can't get more support from "brown" voters. Democrats could put a stranglehold on the White House if they effectively bring Latinos into the fold.
Symbolic gestures like Cabinet appoints do matter in this effort, and certainly Obama's people know that. At the same time, the president-elect seems committed to getting the best and the brightest on his staff -- gender, skin color, or ethnic heritage be damned. In the end, Obama argued, the the two shouldn't be mutually exclusive.
"There is no contradiction between diversity and excellence," he said. "I'm looking, first and foremost, for the best people to serve the American people. It just so happens that Bill Richardson is one of those people."