Justin Vaughn – Presidential policy czars

This is a guest post by Justin Vaughn, Associate Professor of Political science at Boise State University

One of the more surprising controversies early in the first term of Barack Obama was his alleged over-reliance on so-called czars. Although consensus about what constitutes a czar and precisely how many the president was using was elusive, a fair number of the chattering class – particularly those on AM radio airwaves – were quite convinced that the new president was seeding his administration with nefarious staffers hell-bent on achieving his agenda while thwarting both Congress and the U.S. Constitution in the process.

Distracted by the colorful and provocative label ‘czar,’ many lost sight of what it is that these staffers actually do. Czar is a metaphor, one most accurately applied to key, typically high-level managers in the White House who coordinate operations across various organizations in and out of government that are involved in salient, frequently crisis, policy efforts. Almost as a rule these positions tend to be short-term administrative band-aids, necessary because of the ever-more complex nature of White House governance and the broader political system.

Inspired by the sudden attention being paid to an otherwise overlooked bureaucratic and rhetorical phenomenon, we set out to understand how and why presidents use czars, the consequences of this usage, and what we might learn about what separates the best czars from the worst.

The result of our efforts is the book Czars in the White House: The Rise of Policy Czars as a Presidential Management Tool (University of Michigan Press, 2015). In it, we attempt to set aside the myths and mistaken assumptions about presidential policy czars and instead pursue an objective inquiry into whether and why presidents have increasingly relied upon czars to execute their policy agendas and what factors shape the success those czars might have in doing so.

To do so, we identify the leading examples of czars over the past several decades, and use in-depth analyses of them to not only identify the trajectory of czar politics but also what separates successful czars from those who are less so. These examples include: the drug czar, a position that has existed in various forms since the Hoover Administration but became institutionalized in the manner we know today in 1989; the energy czar of the 1970s; the AIDS czars of the 1990s and, to a lesser extent, today; George W. Bush’s post-9/11 czars (e.g., Homeland Security, National Intelligence, and Iraq/Afghanistan War), and Barack Obama’s prominent domestic policy czars.

In the course of these investigations, we find that although every czarship is distinct, motivated by different goals and operating in different contexts, there are some important continuities across time, policy area, and political climate that future czars and the presidents who appoint them alike should consider when determining what is required for a czar to be successful. We identify four key determinants of czar success from our analyses; these include: clarity, expertise, analysis, and access.

In a perfect world – or at least one where a successful czar is an objectively good thing – a president would select an individual who had expertise in both the substantive area in question and managerial experience. The president would also give that person a clear mission to accomplish while communicating to other influential individuals within the administration and the broader bureaucracy that this person speaks with the authority of the president, and then back them up when the czar was inevitably challenged by another disgruntled stakeholder. Finally, the president would give the czar reasonable opportunity to assess the problem and analyze best practices moving forward before implementing potentially half-baked solutions, and then ensure the czar had clear access to them throughout the duration of the crisis that lead to their appointment. Whereas the president largely can’t shape the political context that will encompass the czar’s experience, they can make certain these central factors are present.

It is in the interest of the president to do so, of course, as previous failures in czar leadership can be tied back directly to the absence of these conditions. For example, Bill Clinton’s trio of AIDS czars, widely seen as ineffective and occasionally irrelevant, had very little access to the president, something at least one of them brought to the attention of the president’s chief of staff as they sought to improve the fortunes of their successor. Similarly, czars lacking either substantive expertise or managerial experience find themselves at a disadvantage. George W. Bush’s Intelligence Czar, John Negroponte, was widely known and had tremendous experience as a diplomat, but virtually no experience with the intelligence community. Unsurprisingly, he was unable to bring order to the chaotic intelligence apparatus he inherited. Jerome Jaffe, Richard Nixon’s drug czar from 1971-73, had the opposite problem: he had exceptional public health and drug treatment credentials, but was woefully inexperienced when it came to management. The result of this inexperience was organizational drift that had far-reaching consequences on the way the United States began and continues to wage the war on drugs.

Conversely, situations where presidents ensured the kinds of situations we suggested as ideal above found themselves with czars who made great headway in managing the policy crises they were chosen to corral. For example, William Simon, who ultimately may have been the most effective czar in American history, was instrumental to weathering the energy crisis in early 1974 in large part because of the enormous authority Nixon gave him, even if the president did make the curious and ill-advised comparison to Nazi armaments minister Albert Speer when he introduced Simon in his new capacity as energy czar to the rest of the Cabinet.

The research presented in Czars in the White House leads us to the conclusions that not only was the furor over Barack Obama’s alleged over-reliance on czars at the start of his presidency over-stated, but that the general narrative of increasing presidential reliance in general is also inaccurate. That said, at key moments of political and policy crisis, czars have been important players in the modern presidency, and as the presidency continues to become the focal point of American national governance, this will continue to be the case. And as long as czars are charged with coordinating the executive branch’s response to salient policy problems, it will matter a great deal how successful they are in doing so.

That said, performance effectiveness is not the only useful way of thinking about czars. There are equally valid concerns about presidential usage of czar coordinators, and other political scientists have done well to raise them. Although we shy away from allegations such as those that suggest czars represent a significant threat to constitutional integrity and undermine the legitimacy of Congress, we do agree that the occasional but consistent for presidents to find clever and entrepreneurial administrative solutions to the ongoing problems of organizational complexity and cross-cutting jurisdiction in the federal bureaucracy in general and the Executive Office of the Presidency more specifically indicates that the presidency itself is underserved by an outdated Twentieth Century organizational apparatus, and that new and bold ways of thinking about the administrative presidency are needed as we continue to sail into the Twenty First.

VaughnJustin Vaughn is Associate Professor of Political science at Boise State University. A scholar of the American presidency, he focuses particularly on the rhetorical and administrative dimensions of that office. In addition to Czars in the White House, he has published three other books and several journal articles in outlets including Political Research Quarterly, Presidential Studies Quarterly, and Public Administration. He is currently at work on a book project about the rise and consequences of the post-rhetorical presidency.

jdvillalobosJosé Villalobos is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Texas at El Paso. His research on the American presidency centers on presidential management/policy making and the public presidency. He is also interested in studies on race/ethnicity and immigration. Aside from Czars in the White House, he has published numerous journal articles in Political Research Quarterly, Presidential Studies Quarterly, Public Administration, Administration & Society, and other venues.

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