A man's world at the White House?
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WASHINGTON -- Does the White House feel like a frat house?
The suspicion flared in recent weeks -- and not for the first time -- after President Barack Obama was criticized by women's advocates and liberal bloggers for hosting a high-level basketball game with no female players.
The president, after all, is an unabashed First Guy's Guy. Since being elected, he has demonstrated an encyclopedic knowledge of college hoops on ESPN, indulged a craving for weekend golf, expressed a preference for adopting a "big rambunctious dog" over a "girlie dog" and hoisted beer in a peacemaking effort.
He presides over a White House rife with fist-bumping young men who call each other "dude" and testosterone-brimming personalities like Rahm Emanuel, the often-profane chief of staff; Lawrence Summers, the brash economic adviser; and Robert Gibbs, the press secretary, who habitually speaks in sports metaphors.
The technical foul over the all-male game has become a nagging concern for a White House that has battled an impression dating to the presidential campaign that Mr. Obama's closest advisers form a boys' club and that he is too frequently in the company of only men -- not just when playing sports, but also when making big decisions.
While the senior adviser Valerie Jarrett is undeniably one of the president's closest White House confidants, some women inside or close to the administration complain that Mr. Obama's female advisers are not as visible as their male colleagues or, they suspect, as influential.
"Women are Obama's base, and they don't seem to have enough people who look like the base inside of their own inner circle," said Dee Dee Myers, a former press secretary in the Clinton administration whose sister, Betsy, served as the Obama campaign's chief operating officer.
Pointing out that women were crucial to Mr. Obama's election, Ms. Myers said they had high expectations of him. "Obama has a personal style that appeals to women," she said. "He is seen as a consensus builder; he is not a towel snapper and does not tell crude jokes."
Mr. Obama, in an interview with NBC on Wednesday, called the beef over basketball "bunk," saying that the players were largely picked from a regular congressional game and that the list of invitees was reviewed by women on his staff.
"I don't think it sends any kind of message or signal whatsoever," said the president, who often points out that he is surrounded by strong females at home (where he is the only non-canine male). He added, in the interview, that he had hired women into "some of the most important decision-making positions in this White House."
Ms. Jarrett similarly rejected the notion that the West Wing had been overrun by Y chromosomes. Ms. Jarrett said such complaints were "a Washington perception that has nothing to do with the reality on the ground."
She cites the prominent women Obama has appointed to top positions -- including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor; the health care czar, Nancy-Ann DeParle; and the domestic policy adviser, Melody Barnes. According to figures provided by the administration, there is a 50-50 gender split among employees of the Obama White House.
Still, some high-profile sectors of the White House -- economic and national security, for instance -- are overwhelmingly filled with men and exude an unmistakable male vibe. Mr. Obama's inner circle includes Mr. Gibbs, Mr. Emanuel and his senior adviser, David Axelrod ("The Boys," as they are known to some female staff members).
Women in important White House jobs tend to be less visible than their colleagues, even as the administration is trying to elevate their profiles. (In the same week as the basketball game, Anita Dunn, the White House communications director, hosted a group of women reporters for an off-the-record meeting with Ms. Jarrett over chocolate chip and oatmeal cookies.)
One Democratic media strategist says that some of the disappointment with Mr. Obama is not that he does not place women in important roles. Instead, they cite what they perceive to be his comfort level with staff members.
"There is a sense that Obama has a certain jocular familiarity with the men that he doesn't have with the women," said Tracy Sefl, an adviser to Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign who speaks regularly to women in the administration.
In interviews, five women who work in the White House or advised officials there described the culture with more of a collective eye-roll than any real sense of grievance or discomfort. One junior aide, who like the other women spoke on condition of anonymity because of concerns about appearing publicly critical, said the "sports-fan thing at the White House" could become "annoying" and that her indifference to athletics could be mildly alienating. And while this is not uncommon in any workplace, sports bonding can afford a point of entree with the boss.
For instance, Ben Finkenbinder, a junior press aide and scratch golfer, was recently invited into a foursome with Mr. Obama. (In records kept by Mark Knoller of CBS, the president has played 23 rounds of golf since taking office, none with women, though Mr. Knoller allows that the press office does not always release the names of every player. A White House spokesman, Bill Burton, said Friday that Mr. Obama planned to play this weekend with Ms. Barnes, the president's domestic policy adviser.)
Mr. Obama is hardly the first commander in chief whose penchant for sports and other guyish stuff (comic books, "Star Trek") has become part of his persona. The first President George Bush presented himself as a horseshoe-playing, pork-rind-eating Texan. He was followed by the Big Mac-gobbling, cigar-chomping Bill Clinton and the brush-clearing, bike-busting George W. Bush. It worked to good effect, said Mark McKinnon, a media adviser, mountain bike companion of the latter Bush.
"We see them as president but know they can also shoot hoops and put the hammer down on a chain ring, which makes them more accessible, normal and likeable," he said.
Recreation is only one source of affinity within a White House culture, people there say. Obama veterans describe a camaraderie forged over a grueling campaign and a merciless nine months at the White House. It is not about gender, they say, but shared experience.
"Many of us have known each other for a long time, and we have brother-and-sister kind of relationships," said Jen Psaki, the deputy press secretary, who works in an office with seven other spokesmen under 35, all "brothers" from the campaign.
Other women in the administration say that any discussion of White House culture should account for how politics has long been dominated by men but is now more inclusive. Ms. Dunn, who had to take a typing test three decades ago to work for a campaign, rejects the notion of a boys' club. She calls the Obama administration "refreshingly un-self-conscious" about matters of equality, maybe to a point where they neglected the "optics" of the all-male basketball game.
First Published October 25, 2009 12:00 am