President-elect Barack Obama is in the process of naming more czars than a Russian history text. He has named a climate czar, a performance czar, a bailout czar, and a Middle East policy czar. He has plans for a technology czar, a car czar, an urban policy czar, and the list keeps growing. Presidents appoint czars to coordinate different agencies working in similar areas and give symbolic importance to issues on the president’s agenda. While czars are often appointed with great promise and fanfare, they rarely live up to their promise.
One problem with czars is that they lack any formal authority. They do not control budgets, select personnel, or promulgate regulations. Rather, they have to ask other senior government officials to do those things. These other officials are often Senate-confirmed appointees with powerful patrons in Congress and national reputations. Senior presidential appointments have the legal authority to direct thousands of employees and set policy in their agencies. They rarely have to listen to anyone short of the president or key chairpersons in Congress. This was part of the reason why Congress and the president decided to create a new Department of Homeland Security in 2002 to replace the homeland security czar created by the president in the aftermath of 9/11.
The primary power of czars is their proximity to the president. Theoretically, these officials speak for the president and powerful government officials must come in line or suffer the wrath of the president. In practice, access to the president is scarce and czars without access are officials without power. A former Reagan Treasury Secretary once told a class I taught that he never had a conversation with the president about what Reagan wanted him to do as Treasury Secretary. If the Treasury Secretary cannot get access to the president, you can imagine how hard it will be for the performance czar or the technology czar. And, the more czars the president creates, the less power any one of them is likely to have.
Will Obama’s czars suffer this same fate? Even if they have consistent access to and support from the president, their very existence makes it hard to keep and motivate good people below them. Czars in the White House effectively make cabinet secretaries middle managers. It is hard for the president to get the captains of industry, academia, and government to serve and stay loyal the president’s program if they are repeatedly overruled by White House czars. These officials agree to serve because they want to have influence over important policies and problems. How long would Hillary Clinton serve if she had a “foreign policy czar” over her who held the real power? How hard would her team work if they repeatedly lost out in bureaucratic turf fights arbitrated by this czar? How long would they hold off making their grievances public? What is true in foreign policy is true in climate policy, government management, urban policy, and technology policy.
The president-elect has reportedly been reading through various histories in preparation for his tenure as president. He would do well to study the histories of past czars in consumer affairs, drug policy, or intelligence before creating any others. If he reads these histories so he might decide to limit the number of czars and write a more successful history for his own administration.
Editor’s Note: David Lewis, Professor of Political Science at Vanderbilt University, has generously accepted my invitation to be my first guest blogger.