One of the truly distinctive features of American politics is the massive turnover of top officials following the inauguration of a new president. In no other advanced democracy is the personnel turnover associated with a transition of executive power as extensive.
Given the domestic, international, and economic challenges the country faces, the need for a quick and orderly transition is more imperative than in any time since perhaps 1932. But back then the federal government was smaller and the appointments process was far less contentious and politicized compared to now.
Given how crucial and challenging President Obama’s transition will be, I thought it might be interesting to track how quickly he fills key positions compared with his predecessor. To construct a rough gauge, I have collected information on the confirmation dates of department secretaries, deputy secretaries, and under secretaries (and the Justice Department equivalents) for the Obama and George W. Bush administrations. I’ve narrowed the list to positions that both presidents had to fill (thus ignoring positions that were created or eliminated between 2001 and 2009). This leaves me with a list of 64 positions. Obviously, this list has some limitations. First, it omits the White House staff. This is necessitated by the fact that each president organizes the White House in different ways so that I could not make position by position comparisons. Second, there are important positions in the departments that have titles other than deputy or undersecretary. Nevertheless, comparison across presidents for positions on the list is useful.
In aggregate, the record for Obama is slightly better. By February 20, 2001, Bush had filled 15 of the 64 positions by obtain Senate confirmation or keeping the incumbent from the Clinton administration (one undersecretary of Agriculture). Over the same period, President Obama had filled 17 of the positions. But the aggregate number is a little misleading, Obama filled three of the positions in the Department of Defense with Bush holdovers (Secretary Gates and two undersecretaries). And of course, Obama still has three cabinet openings. Health and Human Services and Commerce lack nominees, and Hilda Solis will not be confirmed at Labor until next week at the earliest. Conversely, Bush had his cabinet secretaries in place by January 29, 2001.
It probably is too early for any definitive assessment. During Bush’s first term, the bulk of the positions on my list were filled in May (24 of 64). So I’ll continue to track this and report back as interesting patterns emerge.