Pledging Beta Omega?

President Obama is golfing at Ft. Belvoir today with Melody Barnes, the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.

This is the president's 24th round of golf since his inauguration, according to the meticulous records of CBS News' Mark Knoller.

And, interestingly, it's the first time the president has played with a woman.

Usually these outings are men only.

But today's round of golf comes after some questions raised by the media about what some critics say is a too-fratty atmosphere in the White House, a place where the president's closest advisers -- chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, senior adviser David Axelrod, and press secretary Robert Gibbs -- are known by women at the White House as "the Boys." That's a perception fed with lower-level aides like personal assistant Reggie Love and trip director Marvin Nicholson who have close personal relationships with the president and play basketball and golf with him.

On one level, this is much ado about nothing. No one is alleging discrimination or an uncomfortable work place. White House aides point to the myriad women in positions of power -- Barnes, senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Communications Director Anita Dunn, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, UN ambassador Dr. Susan Rice, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, and many others as evidence that any notion that the White House should stamp "Beta Omega" above its columns.

White House aides also point to the president's substantive agenda to rebut the charge. They point to the first bill the president signed -- the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act -- his support for parity in health care coverage, abortion rights, and many other issues as evidence that this is a president who fervently believes in women's equality in law and in practice.

And yet, plenty of Democratic women who support the president aren't so quick to dismiss the notion that the White House can be a little boy's-clubby.

As ABC News' Karen Travers noted on October 8 , President Obama invited to the White House a number of officials for a game of hoops: Secretary of Housing & Urban Development Shaun Donovan, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, and 11 Members of Congress (nine Democrats, two Republicans).

No women were included.

Not even Sebelius, who played basketball for Trinity University in Washington, DC, and who had been asked that same week by Jay Leno who might win a game of HORSE between her and the president. "You know I actually made my college basketball team," she said as the crowd laughed. "I'm not sure he did so you know, bring it on."

That day, Gibbs was asked about the estrogen absence in the basketball game and said the point was "well taken."

"The president, obviously, is someone who, as the father of two young daughters, has an avid interest in their competing against anybody on the playing field" Gibbs said. "The president's certainly played basketball and other sports with women in the past, and I anticipate he'll do so in the future."

Last week, NBC's Savannah Guthrie asked the president about the game.

"You could say this was just a game," she said. "You might say it was a networking opportunity with the President or some kind of political activity. And I guess I just wonder, what happened there? Some people might look at that and say gosh, there's the old boys' club again."

The president was quick to disagree.

"Yeah, I've got to say I think this is bunk," he said. "You know, basically, the House of Representatives, they have a regular basketball game. And they had wanted to play here at the White House court. And we invited them. You know, I don't think it sends any kind of message or signal whatsoever."

Today the New York Times' Mark Leibovich took a look at the issue of whether the president's White House is a bit too fratty.

“There is a sense that Obama has a certain jocular familiarity with the men that he doesn’t have with the women,” former Clinton for president adviser Tracy Sefl -- whom Leibovich says "speaks regularly to some female aides in the administration" -- told the Times.

But Jarrett called the meme “a Washington perception that has nothing to do with the reality on the ground.”

Though President Obama overwhelmingly won the women's vote last November, his opponents have tried to imply something fratty about him.

It was a year and a half ago, when Clinton was still a senator intensely squared off against Obama, that several Democrats in her camp pointed to occasional comments he made -- "You challenge the status quo and suddenly the claws come out," and "I understand that Senator Clinton, periodically when she's feeling down, launches attacks as a way of trying to boost her appeal" -- as evidence of a certain fratty cluelessnes.

Pro-Clinton blogger Taylor Marsh wrote that words like this, in her view, indicated "a way of thinking about women. A way of demeaning women in power; even saying we're not up to the job. Seriously, Senator Hillary Clinton is a woman running for president. Not some emotional menopausal diva popping pills because she's depressed she broke a nail."

In a pitch for disaffected Clinton supporters, the campaign of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also attempted to suggest that there was something chauvinistic about then-Sen. Obama, relying quite a bit on a column by conservative writer Deroy Murdock that suggested that on average, women in McCain's office are paid more than the men in McCain's office, while the women in Obama's office made less than the men did. Only one of Obama's five best-paid Senate staffers was a woman. Of McCain's five best-paid Senate staffers, three were women.

In any case, this is the context in which Barnes is playing golf today.


- jpt

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