WASHINGTON — Deflecting criticism about a perceived lack of diversity in his second-term Cabinet, President Barack Obama on Monday urged Americans not to rush to judgment about who he will appoint to replace departing members of his team.
In a declaration tinged with the rhetoric of his re-election campaign, Obama asserted: "We're not going backwards, we're going forward."
Scrutiny has been mounting over the number of women and minorities that will surround the nation's first black president in his second term. Cabinet members who are departing at the end of his first term — including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — are being replaced largely by white males. But in the final White House news conference of his first term, Obama brushed off that criticism, asking for critics to hold their tongues until the remaining vacancies have been filled.
"I'm very proud that in the first four years, we had as diverse, if not a more diverse, a White House and a Cabinet than any in history," Obama said. "I intended to continue that, because it turns out when you look for the very best people, given the incredible diversity of this country, you're going to end up with a diverse staff."
Running through a list of high-profile positions filled by women during his first term — such as Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius — Obama said women comprised 50 percent of his White House staff during his first four years, not to mention the two women he nominated to fill Supreme Court vacancies.
Still, Obama's appeal for patience was unlikely to quell the concerns of members of his own party who have publicly fretted whether Obama's Cabinet and the tight cadre of advisers who will have his ear over the next four years will end up almost entirely male and white, in stark contrast to the diverse coalition of women, Hispanics and minorities that helped give Obama a second term.
"It's as embarrassing as hell," Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y., one of the longest-serving African-Americans in Congress, said last week.
Obama nominated Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry to replace Clinton at the State Department after U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, who is black, asked for her name to be removed from consideration. Republicans had blasted Rice over her initial comments about the attacks on Americans in Benghazi, Libya.
Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, who is Hispanic, stepped down last week, adding to a list of departures that includes EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, who is black. Obama has not yet announced who he will nominate to fill those roles. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is staying for Obama's second term.
The president has announced his picks to fill two other top jobs, nominating former Sen. Chuck Hagel to run the Defense Department and Obama's chief of staff, Jack Lew, to serve as Treasury secretary. The two leading candidates to replace Lew at the White House are both male.
Meanwhile, Attorney General Eric Holder, who is black, and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, who is of Japanese-American descent, will stay on, a White House official said last week. A spokesman for Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Monday that he too will keep his job in Obama's second term.
Associated Press writer Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report. Reach Josh Lederman on Twitter at http://twitter.com/joshledermanAP