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Obama: 'I Love the South'

By Ed O'Keefe

Experience and professional qualifications trump regional considerations in the selection of Cabinet secretaries and other top government appointees, President Obama told a group of reporters from regional newspapers during an interview earlier this week. The lack of southerners in his Cabinet and among senior staff does not signal a geographic bias, he said.

"I love the South," Obama said three times during his response to a question about why there is only one southerner in a senior position in his administration.

"By my count, you have about seven folks from the Midwest, six from the West, a crowd from the Northeast," the reporter said, noting that White House press secretary and Alabama native Robert Gibbs is the only Southerner in a top government job.

"I love the South," Obama reiterated. "I've got to admit that we have thought a lot about finding the very best people for the jobs and haven't been thinking with great intensity about regionalism, because partly except for food and sports teams and weather, I mean, we're one country. And I think that people are so mobile these days that -- I tend to think of ourselves as all just Americans."

Obama's Cabinet includes appointees from the West (DHS's Janet Napolitano, Labor's Hilda Solis, Energy's Steven Chu, Commerce nominee Gary Locke), the Midwest (Defense Secretary Robert Gates, HHS nominee Kathleen Sebelius, USDA's Tom Vilsack and DOT's Ray LaHood ), the Northeast (EPA's Lisa P. Jackson, HUD's Shaun Donovan) and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who could conceivably claim every region except the West.

Several news reports have noted the absence of sons or daughters of Dixie. By comparison, President Bush's first cabinet included at least three Southerners: Texan Don Evans at Commerce, Mississippian Rod Paige at Education and Floridian Mel Martinez at HUD.

Interview of the President by Regional Reporters, 3/11/09

Question regarding the geographic diversity of Obama's appointtees:

Q Thank you, Mr. President. I wanted to ask you about your Cabinet and your senior staff. By my count, you have about seven folks from the Midwest, six from the West, a crowd from the Northeast, and with maybe the exception of your able-bodied press secretary --

THE PRESIDENT: Gibbs?

Q Mr. Gibbs.

THE PRESIDENT: He's the only Southerner?

Q I think so.

THE PRESIDENT: You guys are feeling neglected?

Q Yes. (Laughter.) So I'm wondering why is that and what you don't like about the South?

THE PRESIDENT: I love the South. (Laughter.)

Q And I'd also ask -- like to ask you about -- I think this is an unrelated question -- the salmonella outbreak and food safety originated in Georgia and what you think needs to be done about that?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, look, the -- I love the South. I've got to admit that we have thought a lot about finding the very best people for the jobs and haven't been thinking with great intensity about regionalism, because partly except for food and sports teams and weather, I mean, we're one country. And I think that people are so mobile these days that -- I tend to think of ourselves as all just Americans.

But if you've got some great Southerners -- (laughter) -- who want to work for us, please let me know, because we're always open. I love the South.

Food safety is a serious concern, and I've directed both FDA -- I've directed both the Department of Agriculture and Health and Human Services to work to come up with a plan so that a lot of these different agencies that have some jurisdiction over food safety are integrated in a much more effective way and things aren't falling through the cracks.

There's a lot of work that needs to be done in working on the front-end with food producers so that there are better warning signals of potential problems than we have right now. And we also need to be able to trace sources of food contamination much more quickly than we're doing right now. And technology can be helpful, but the key is actually reorganizing the agencies that are responsible so that they're working more in concert than they are right now.

Q Thank you, and thanks for doing these. I actually have a follow-up on FDA, and that is, do you still support that agency regulating tobacco, and if so --

THE PRESIDENT: Yes.

Q -- what's the timeline you'd like to see Congress working on that? And is the agency up to the task if we're still having -- just like we saw last month with the peanut butter -- food problems?

THE PRESIDENT: You know, we're probably going to have an announcement on this fairly soon so I don't want to step on my own story, but I do think that the FDA has an important role to play on an issue that obviously has enormous impact on the health of the American people. That's all you're going to get out me there. (Laughter.)

SOURCE: White House Office of the Press Secretary

By Ed O'Keefe  | March 13, 2009; 11:06 AM ET
Categories:  Administration, Revolving Door  
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Comments

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