The Contemporary Presidency: The Personnel Process in the Modern Presidency

By Lewis, David E. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, September 2012 | Go to article overview

The Contemporary Presidency: The Personnel Process in the Modern Presidency


Lewis, David E., Presidential Studies Quarterly


During a presidential election year, public attention naturally turns toward candidates and campaigns. Newscasters and media experts dissect polls and campaign strategy. The best prepared candidates, however, are thinking beyond voting day toward postelection planning. The immensity of transition planning requires that responsible presidential campaigns begin planning months and even more than a year in advance. Governor George W. Bush began planning for a transition to the presidency in April 1999, well before he had even secured a vote to become his party's nominee, much less president of the United States. Presidential candidates do the planning out of sight from the campaign and the press. If word leaks out about postelection planning, this can create uncertainty and division among the candidate's campaign staff and appear presumptuous to voters. Yet candidates who refuse to plan cannot make up for it in the short period between Election Day and inauguration.

The task of transitioning to become president is enormous (Burke 2000, 2004; Patterson and Pfiffner 2001; Pfiffner 1996). On the personnel side, the president must fill 3,000 to 4,000 positions in the federal executive establishment (Lewis 2008; Patterson 2008; Patterson and Pfiffner 2001; Pfiffner 1996). One-quarter of these posts require Senate confirmation, which adds a layer of complexity to their selection. (1) Presidents do so under time constraints and tremendous scrutiny from supporters, Congress, and the press.

The stakes in these decisions are high. Missteps in early appointments distract from the president's priorities and can leave the president significantly understaffed in key policy areas. For example, President Obama's nomination of former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle to head the Department of Health and Human Services foundered on revelations about Daschle's tax problems, hindering the president's work on health care reform. The president was also slow to fill vacancies in the Treasury Department, where Secretary Timothy Geithner was the only confirmed nominee during the crucial early period after the nomination. (2) Missteps in these early appointments contribute to the Washington community's first impressions of the president. The willingness of Washington insiders to bend to the president's wishes depends upon insiders' assessment of whether going along with the president will cost them more than it gains them. A president who bungles appointments early in his presidency sends the signal that supporting the president is risky. Early missteps are also a distraction since media stories focus on these issues rather than the president's policy priorities. If presidents lose control of the news cycle, it is hard for the president to refocus the nation's attention on their policy agenda.

Ultimately, given the substantial authority delegated to government executives in areas such as the environment, health, and foreign policy, these appointments can have a significant influence on policy outputs (Moe 1982, 1985; Randall 1979; Stewart and Cromartie 1982; Wood 1990; Wood and Anderson 1993; Wood and Waterman 1991, 1994). Picking the right persons for key appointed jobs can lead to huge policy changes that have dramatic consequences for voters and key stakeholders. It is hard to imagine any assessment of President Obama's first term divorced from the actions, advice, and infighting of his economic team (Suskind 2011). Similarly, President George W. Bush's ultimate legacy is determined in part by the actions of appointees such as Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and Douglas Feith at the Department of Defense, and Michael Brown at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Cooper and Block 2007; Woodward 2002).

Presidents tackle their personnel responsibilities differently. They prioritize different positions and display different levels of personal involvement. Yet, all presidents face broadly similar concerns and incentives, to manage the federal executive establishment and use the pool of available jobs to achieve policy and political goals.

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