Posted on January 15, 2001 in Washington Watch

If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, E. Spencer Abraham and Mitchell E. Daniels will become members of the Cabinet of the incoming Bush Administration. Abraham has been nominated by the President-elect to be Secretary of Energy. Daniels has been named as Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

What makes these appointments worthy of note is that both men are Arab Americans who are proud of their heritage and supportive of their community.

In 1993, President Clinton set a record when he appointed Donna Shalala to be Secretary of Health and Human Services. She was the first Arab American to serve in a Cabinet position. George W. Bush has now broken that record by nominating two Arab Americans to his cabinet.

Of the two, Abraham is the better known to Arab Americans. During his recent term as a U.S. Senator from Michigan, he established a record of service on a number of issues of importance to Arab Americans. He fought to defend Arab American civil rights. During the Senate’s consideration of anti-terrorism legislation, Abraham worked hard to eliminate some of the more abusive aspects of the bill. And in the midst of the difficult anti-immigrant era of the mid-1990s, Abraham fought against efforts to restrict legal immigration into the United States. This work earned him the praise of a number of ethnic communities.

On Middle East issues, Abraham also sought to be responsive to Arab American community concerns. Understanding the reality of politics in the Senate, he made an effort to accomplish what was possible. He made a determined fight to increase aid to Lebanon. He helped to lead the way to end the travel ban to Lebanon. He consistently voted to support a balanced Middle East policy. For example, he was one of seven to oppose moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and he refused to sign many of the one-sided pro-Israel letters criticizing Palestinians or President Clinton’s peace making efforts. Finally, Abraham worked with U.S. humanitarian organizations helping them to secure licenses to provide needed aid to the people of Iraq.

On December 15, 2000, when he left the Senate, after losing a close election in November, Abraham spoke eloquently about his roots and his community.

Speaking of the Arab American community he noted:

    “I believe the Arab American community has become a key part of the American political process….Not only are people voting in greater numbers as a percentage of the community, and for many taking the first step of participating in the elections, but their activism in Michigan and other States has grown considerably. I take great pride in seeing that happen. In addition, we have seen a number of Arab Americans rise to leadership positions at the local level of government all the way up to statewide offices. In the Congress itself we have several Members of Arab heritage on the House side who were elected in the most recent campaigns.”

    “Much of this progress, I think, has translated into progress on issues of importance to the Arab American community in the last six years. I have been proud during my term in the Senate to have worked on behalf of a number of important issues relevant to the community….I think the potential for the future is even greater. I think it is very likely in the area of public policy that the people from the Arab American community will rise and play an ever active role and a greater role, as they have done in other fields of endeavor. In America’s business community, we have many Arab American leaders today who are heading up important companies from one end of the country to the other. In sports and entertainment and the arts, we likewise have seen Arab Americans excel. In education, the same is true.”

He spoke of is own roots and family, noting that:

    “I am very proud of my heritage…My grandparents came a century ago from Lebanon, where they left behind everything to risk their fortunes on America. As is the case with people not just from the Arab American community but so many other immigrant communities, they came here with very little in the way of material possessions, but they came with a great deal of desire and energy and the hope that by working hard and playing by the rules they could make a contribution.”

In fact, Spencer Abraham is a real American success story. After having been active in local politics in 1982, Abraham was chosen to serve as the Chairman of the Michigan Republican Party. In 1990 he was appointed as then Vice President Dan Qualye’s Deputy Chief of Staff. In 1994 he was elected to the Senate.

During the 1980s, Abraham was helpful to Arab Americans. He was committed to hiring Arab Americans, giving them opportunities in politics and public service. He frequently addressed Arab American Institute (AAI) events, even hosting a fundraising dinner for AAI in 1987.

Abraham’s new post as Secretary of Energy will be an interesting challenge. In 1995, as a new Senator, Abraham actually co-sponsored a bill pushed by the Republican leadership that sought to abolish the very Department he has now been appointed to lead. One can, therefore, expect that the new Secretary will make a determined effort to reduce costs and streamline the Department.

The Energy Department has a large budget that administers programs in a wide range of areas: energy programs, national security programs, environmental management programs, and science and technology programs.

As described by the official U.S. Government Manual, the purposes of the department are to “achieve efficiency in energy use, diversity in energy sources, a more productive and competitive economy, improved environmental quality, and a secure national defense.”

No doubt, given his experiences in management, his administrative skills and his background, Abraham will use his unique strengths during his tenure as Secretary of Energy.

Mitchell Daniels, the new Director of the OMB, also has a long history of public service and has established himself as a proud Arab American who has made a determined effort to be supportive of the community.

A lawyer by training, Daniels served in the early 1980s as Chief of Staff to Indiana’s Republican Senator Richard Lugar. Following that, he moved to the National Republican Senatorial Committee where he served as Executive Director. In 1985 he was appointed by then President Ronald Reagan as his chief political adviser in the White House, a position he held until 1987.

From 1987 until his recent appointment, Daniels has served in a number of leadership roles with both non-profit organizations and major U.S. corporations. He was president of the prestigious conservative think tank, the Hudson Institute and more recently he served as Senior Vice President of Eli Lilly, one of the world’s largest and most respected pharmaceutical companies. It is interesting to note that even with all of these credentials, Daniels makes a point of noting on his resume that in 1987 he was awarded the National Public Servant of the Year Award by the Arab American Institute. Arab Americans who were present that night when AAI recognized Daniels for his service to his country and his community, recall him speaking with pride of his Syrian-American ancestry and of the values and concerns his parents instilled in him. During his tenure at the White House, Daniels was always open to working with the community and assisting, as best he could, on issues of concern.

As Director of OMB Daniels assumes one of the White House’s most powerful positions. As defined by the U.S. Government Manual, the OMB’s primary functions are to: “evaluate, formulate and coordinate management procedure and program objectives within and among Federal departments and agencies. It also controls the administration of the Federal budget, while routinely providing the President with recommendations regarding budget proposals and relevant legislative enactments.”

Given President-elect Bush’s stated priority of cutting taxes while still providing for increases in some government programs and maintaining a balanced budget, the work of the OMB will be central to the success of his Administration’s efforts.

Both Abraham and Daniels are poised to make significant contributions during the next four years. As they do, they will be a source of pride to Arab Americans. Like Donna Shalala, before them, they are descendents of Arab immigrants who have risen to the highest positions in government. They are role models for our young and examples we can point to when asked by others “What have Arab Americans contributed to America?”

For comments, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org.

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