In recent months, something of a parlor game has developed in which the media competes to draw comparisons between the Bush and Obama administrations. Purported examples include the continued use of the state secrets defense in cases against Guantanamo detainees, a disregard for budget deficits, and a focus on immigration enforcement.
Another favorite parlor game is to try to enumerate and name President Obama's 20 (some say 30) or so czars, also known - somewhat less dramatically - as his White House policy advisers. Blogger Michelle Malkin has manufactured trading cards adorned with images of the 12 "most ethics-compromised." House Minority Whip Eric Cantor pegs the number at 32.
Conservatives and some liberals have complained that this second game exposes a serious overreach of executive authority, one that, as a Politico Ideas piece termed it, "run[s] counter to Obama's promises." These critics - who vary from partisan crazies like Malkin to conservative Democrats like Senator Robert Byrd - believe that Obama's appointment of czars is a hypocritical continuation of Bush's concentration of power in the executive branch.
Whatever fun there is to be had playing these two games (I'd venture to say not much), criticism of the czar "system" is overblown. In fact, a czar's power comes not from dictatorial authority, but from humble restraint.
Critics of czars point out that these White House advisers are often* not subject to Senate confirmation and so are unaccountable to Congress. However, as Paul Light pointed out in The New York Times in March, the leisurely pace of Senate confirmations often forces the President to rely on non-cabinet White House staff to keep all the necessary policy balls in the air. Additionally, unconfirmed cabinet staffers already wield significant influence within their departments: confirming every administration official is simply impractical.
A more serious criticism, especially when paired with the accountability argument, holds that czars wield extraordinary power within the administration. Rep. Cantor wrote recently in The Washington Post that Obama's czars have "so much authority on endless policy fronts," a critique echoed by Boston College Law Professor Richard Albert, who complains that "The president's czars often wield powers greater than those of Cabinet secretaries..." Malkin accuses the President of "creat[ing] a two-tiered government" of "shadow secretaries with broad powers beyond congressional reach." She dismisses the president's cabinet as "a useful smokescreen to obscure the true source of policy decision-making": the czars.
The idea that czars are omnipotent bureaucratic creatures is simply false. In fact, they are in large part defined by their lack of power. Take the newly created Office of Urban Affairs. An executive order issued in February created a cities czar to "coordinate federal programs" and "develop an urban agenda," phrases normally mocked as the dreamy, naïve language of wonks. The Office, headed by former Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion, currently has a staff of just five and a meager budget. Contrast that with the Department of Housing and Urban Development's more than 9,000 full-time employees and $40 billion-plus budget.
Since the urban affairs office's inception, Carrion has played host to an urban policy roundtable and visited the Parkside ShopRite in Philadelphia to promote food access. Meanwhile, HUD and its Secretary Shaun Donovan have in just the last month authorized $2.25 billion in recovery act funds for affordable housing, announced $113 million for the HOPE VI program to revitalize public housing, and altered the guidelines used by the FHA to make it easier for homeowners to modify their mortgages. Carrion, like most of the other White House czars, has neither the resources nor the mandate to develop and implement significant policies and programs.
Yet it is true that President Obama relies more on White House czars than his predecessors, almost certainly because these advisers suit his leadership style. Thus far in his presidency, Obama has declined to offer concrete legislative language for his most important policy priorities (health care and climate change). Instead, he and especially his czars champion broad principles and nudge congressional proposals along when they match administration priorities. As USA Today put it in describing the roles of health czar Nancy-Ann DeParle and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, "The President also has two pragmatists whose goal, like his, is to work with Congress rather than dictate to it..."
DeParle, for instance, is not powerful in any ordinary sense. While a fully resourced, congressionally sanctioned Washington bureaucracy stands behind HHS Secretary Sebelius, DeParle has only her proximity to the president to fall back on. DeParle could never take on the same responsibilities as Sebelius, overseeing the FDA, NIH, and Medicare. She even faces competition from within the White House, with powerful personalities like Peter Orszag and David Axelrod similarly jockeying for the president's attention on health care issues.
To be successful, czars must embrace these limits. President Obama has called DeParle his health reform "point guard." The point guard's ability to score is much less important than her ability to direct activity on the court and get the ball to the right player at the right moment. Similarly, DeParle's value to the administration comes not from developing her own health reform agenda but from listening to interest groups, including the biggest and baddest insurance companies, harmonizing the administration's priorities with those of members of Congress, and focusing the energies of all White House offices on health reform.
Recognizing the limits to their power will allow DeParle and other czars to avoid the criticism that besets the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The Office is constantly maligned as ineffective because no drug czar has ever won the War on Drugs. But can the drug czar, equipped with a $27 million budget and a staff of 100, really expect to eradicate a North American drug trade worth as much as $40 billion a year that claimed more than 6,000 lives in Mexico alone last year?
The best the drug czar and others can do is to emphasize - through mundane documents like supplementary budgets and through public events like Carrion's visit to the supermarket - that the country's most intractable problems require the energy, the resources, and the attention of many different government agencies.
DeParle cannot simply force her vision of health care reform on the administration, as critics of czars often imply. Nor can Carrion, the urban affairs czar, heft upon Congress a legislative agenda designed to invigorate metropolitan areas. They lack the mandate, the resources, and the institutional standing to do so.
Czars can, however, be point guards, stealing the spotlight while the action is happening but rarely getting credit when the game is over. The influence of DeParle, Carrion, and the other czars will come from humility: instructing the relevant players - from insurance companies to mayors - on when and where they need to take action. This is a power far different from the extraordinary and devious one often attributed to them.
*I say often because several of the White House advisers referred to casually as "czars" are actually confirmed by the Senate. The drug czar, Director of National Drug Control Policy, and the trade czar, United States Trade Representative, are two such examples.