WASHINGTON — The reshuffling of President Barack Obama’s Cabinet gained speed Wednesday when Labor Secretary Hilda Solis announced her resignation, but White House officials said three others, including Attorney General Eric Holder, would remain in their jobs.
Obama hailed Solis, who presided over a period of high unemployment, as “a tireless champion for working families” during “the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.” In a statement Wednesday, the president said that “her efforts have helped train workers for the jobs of the future, protect workers’ health and safety and put millions of Americans back to work.”
Solis had been the first and only Hispanic-American woman in a top Cabinet post. Her resignation, after the resignation of Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson and the withdrawal of Susan Rice from consideration for secretary of state, intensifies debate over whether there will be enough racial and gender diversity in Obama’s second-term Cabinet.
Obama has been restocking his cabinet ahead of his inauguration Jan. 20, this week unveiling nominees to lead the Defense Department and Central Intelligence Agency. On Thursday, he is expected to nominate White House Chief of Staff Jacob Lew to be Treasury secretary. Earlier, he named Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., as his choice for secretary of state. All four nominees are white men.
White House aides said, however, that Holder, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki would remain in their posts. People familiar with Holder’s thinking said he does not expect to stay in office for Obama’s entire second term, and perhaps for as little as a few months.
Obama relied heavily on support from women and minority groups in the election, and some supporters have voiced concerns about a lack of women in top Cabinet jobs. But White House press secretary Jay Carney defended the president’s hiring record Wednesday, saying that Obama believes “diversity is important.”
“Women are well-represented here in the president’s senior staff,” Carney said. “These stories are in reaction to a couple of appointments.” He suggested waiting to see the “totality” of the president’s second-term Cabinet before rendering judgment on the diversity of his senior staff.
Solis has been widely expected to resign to run for office in Los Angeles, most likely for the powerful Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
In an interview at a Washington Post Live event in December, Solis recalled that a high school counselor “told me that I was not college material and that I should lower my sights and stay as secretary. Thirty years later, I can say my title is secretary of labor.”
Solis has defended the administration’s record on job creation despite a stubbornly high unemployment rate that now stands at 7.8 percent nationwide and is far higher for blacks and Latinos.
She also has come under criticism from some coal mine safety experts for failing to shake up the department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration or implement effective new regulations in the wake of the Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion in West Virginia, which killed 29 workers.
“What regulatory scheme has grown out of Upper Big Branch that has changed mine safety?” said Davitt McAteer, a former MSHA director and author of a report on the disaster. “The answer is nothing.” While acknowledging potential obstacles to changes in other parts of the government, McAteer said, “you’ve got to be able to put a package together and push it through, but that hasn’t happened.”
Nonetheless, news of her resignation prompted praise from leading Democrats and labor leaders.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka issued a statement saying that Solis, who came from a blue-collar family, had “brought urgently needed change” to the Labor Department. He said that, under her, the department “talks tough and acts tough on enforcement, workplace safety, wage and hour violations and so many other vital services.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called her “an unflinching advocate for American workers.”
In a tweet Wednesday, Solis said: “We’ve accomplished much over the last 4 years, but none of it would have been possible without our greatest asset: America’s workers.
Sari Horwitz and Al Kamen contributed to this report.