The right's myth about Obama's cabinet

Conservatives claim a lack of private sector experience in the administration, based on faulty numbers

Published December 7, 2009 4:51PM (EST)

From the moment it was announced, the jobs summit that President Obama held last week drew heavy criticism from the right. The mere fact that the White House was holding such a summit in the first place seemed to be offensive to many conservatives. After all, they say, almost nobody in the Obama administration has any background in business.

Last week, Glenn Beck trumpeted the news that less than 10 percent of Obama’s cabinet appointees have actually "had jobs in the private sector." Thursday, in an interview with Sean Hannity, Newt Gingrich put that number at 8 percent. A similar statistic has appeared on numerous conservative websites, typically to suggest that Obama’s jobs summit is an absurd conference of government bureaucrats and university eggheads who’ve never created a job in their lives.

Unfortunately for Beck, Gingrich and all the others, their new favorite statistic appears to have little basis in fact.

The claim can be traced back to a column by Michael Cembalest entitled "Obama’s Business Blind Spot." In the article, Cembalest, the chief operating officer of J.P. Morgan Private Bank, presents his findings about the private-sector experience of certain Cabinet appointees -- those he thought most likely to weigh in on the job debate -- for every president since Theodore Roosevelt. The post happened to include a chart, which initially indicated that less than 10 percent of Obama’s appointees had business experience. subsequently altered the graph to show that more than 20 percent of Obama’s Cabinet members have a private-sector background -- but not before it had been gleefully reproduced, in it is original form, all over the right.

To the chagrin of Obama’s conservative opponents, even the adjusted figures are dubious. Excluding lawyers and consultants (as Cembalest did), three of the nine members of Obama’s Cabinet included in the study -- fully 33 percent -- do have private-sector experience. Energy Secretary Steven Chu worked at AT & T Bell Laboratories for nine years, ultimately as the head of their Quantum Electronics Research Department. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan, was a managing director at Prudential Mortgage Capital, where he directed the corporation’s $1.5 billion of investments in affordable housing loans. Finally, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar -- on top of his work as Colorado attorney general and a U.S. senator -- was a partner in his family’s farm for over thirty years. Salazar and his wife have also owned and operated a number of small businesses, including a Dairy Queen and several radio stations.

Another three of Obama’s appointees -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke -- all spent part of their careers working as lawyers. And Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner worked as a consultant at Kissinger Associates, a firm that advises international companies on economic and political conditions abroad.

By this count, seven out of these nine Obama appointees (or 78 percent) do have private-sector experience. Gingrich was only off by about 70 percentage points.

Even the original source of the claim is appalled by what it's become, and has been chastising himself for it. Cembalest told that his study was based on "some kind of completely, 100 percent subjective assessment of whether or not a person had had enough control of payroll, dealing with shareholders, hiring, firing and risk-taking that they’d be in a position to have had a meaningful seat at the table when the issue being discussed is job creation."

By Emily Holleman

Emily Holleman is the editor of Open Salon.

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