Tag Archives: David Lewis

Doesn’t He Also Need a Czar Czar?

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.

Progressives in the Cabinet

David Lewis offers a very insightful response to my post on the composition of Obama’s cabinet. So insightful, in fact, that I want to re-post and respond here rather than the comments section.

One thing to remember here is that there arguably aren’t that many progressives with resumes to easily qualify them for a top spot after 8 years of Bush and 8 years of Clinton. I suspect where you will initially see lots of progressives, if at all, will be in the White House and in the sub-cabinet. The appointments of the science advisor and the NOAA head yesterday were both progressives. You bring them in, you credential them, and then you elevate them later.

Another thing to consider here is that most of the people who have been pre-vetted are Clinton people who tended to be more moderate.

  • The point about the pipeline is good one, but not entirely persuasive since Obama went heavily to the legislative and gubernatorial wells and overwhelmingly chose moderates. There are certainly progressives in the academic and think tank worlds who are sufficiently credentialed.

  • One of the striking things about Obama’s appointments is that each time he appointed a progressive he tended to balance him/her with a moderate. Stephen Chu gets Energy, but Ken Salazar gets Interior. Hilda Solis gets Labor, but free-trading Ron Kirk will be the U.S. Trade Representative. But moderates aren’t balanced off. Where is the Joe Stiglitz to the Larry Summers?

  • I agree that there may be more progessives in the sub-cabinet. Clearly, the strategy of the Bush adminstration was to get movement conservatives into sub-cabinet positions and then coordinate them from the White House. But I question whether, Obama could pursue a similar strategy. After all, such high profile picks are not likely to be so keen to have appointments dictated to them from the White House.

  • I also agree that climate and the environment is one area where the new adminstration appears the most willing to push to the left.

Let me just conclude by saying that I think Obama’s cabinet is one incredibly impressive group of individuals. My only doubt is whether his “Dream Team” can function in such a way that most effectively pursues his agenda.

Politicians in the Cabinet

With the announcement that Tom Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa, will be nominated to be Secretary of Agriculture and that Colorado Senator Ken Salazar will be nominated to be Secretary of the Interior, six of the fifteen cabinet departments are likely be headed by individuals who have reached the top rungs of electoral politics by serving either as governor or senator (the others in this category are, of course, Hillary Clinton, Tom Daschle, Janet Napolitano, and Bill Richardson). This seemed like a large number to me, so I thought it would be worthwhile to compare to recent presidents. For comparability purposes, I’ll focus only on the first appointments to each position.

George Bush’s initial cabinet had only three former governors or senators — John Ashcroft (Gov & Sen, MO), Tommy Thompson (Gov, WI), and Spencer Abraham (Sen, MI) — in the 14 departments that existed when he came to office. Former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge was added when Homeland Security was created.

Bill Clinton also appointed three high-flying politicians to his cabinet — Lloyd Bentsen (Sen, TX), Richard Riley (Gov, SC), Bruce Babbitt (Gov-AZ) — while George H.W. Bush held over Dick Thornburgh (Gov, PA) from the end of the Reagan administration but didn’t appoint any of his own. Ronald Reagan appointed Richard Schweiker (Sen-PA) and James Edwards (Gov-SC) to head departments he didn’t care much for (HHS and Energy).

So six is a big number. Moreover, big-name politicians will be running many of the departments that will be crucial in developing and implementing President Obama’s agenda and may determine the success of his presidency (e.g. State, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security).

So what are the pros and cons of so many politicians in the cabinet? One argument in favor is that cabinet appointments are useful for building and maintaining coalitions and avoiding party factionalism. This may explain the Clinton appointment, but it is not so obvious that this can account for the others most of whom supported Obama in the primaries. It is also curious as to why avoiding party factionalism is so much more important to Obama than it was for the other presidents of the past 30 years. The second benefit is that senators and governors bring strong ties to Congress and the states. Legislative relations will be obviously important to Obama as he tries to ensure that the “most liberal Congress in history” does not get too far out in front of him. Harmony with the states will be crucial on health care, the environment, and a host of other issues.

But politicians in the cabinet create problems as well. Unlike the career civil servant who ascends to the position or the Washington newcomer, former senators and governors have power bases and networks that are independent of the White House. So it will be considerably harder for the administration to control and manage what happens in the agencies. Second, senators and governors are usually generalists without deep expertise about the policy jurisdiction or culture of the departments that they are to lead. Such a lack of expertise may lead to policy failures or to capture by careerists or both. My former colleague David Lewis has produced ample evidence that careerists do a much better job running sub-cabinet agencies than do political appointees. It would be troubling indeed if his findings were to apply to cabinet departments as well.