Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Contemporary Presidency: Reconsidering Presidential Policy Czars

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Contemporary Presidency: Reconsidering Presidential Policy Czars

Article excerpt

October 2013 was not a great time to be on the health care reform team in the Obama White House. The rollout for healthcare.gov--the web site that had been set up for the federal insurance exchange mandated by the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare)--had been bungled, with only a few thousand sign-ups a month after the site's launch. Pressure was growing for the administration to appoint a high-profile manager to coordinate interagency efforts to solve the technological problems, improve communications, and implement the immense and complex health care legislation to give Americans plenty of time to sign up for new insurance plans before the December 23, 2013, deadline.

This kind of bureaucratic solution to a major, salient policy challenge was not unique; indeed, it has been so commonplace over the past several decades that the phenomenon has its own term: czar. From managing the war on drugs to overseeing efforts to avert potential Y2K disaster, czars have long been a preferred response to coordinating policy action that required cooperation across the myriad agencies, offices, and departments of the federal government. Czars have not always been an uncontroversial administrative solution, however, and no president knew more than Barack Obama just how contentious the usage of presidential policy czars really could be. Following his 2008 defeat of Senator John McCain (R-AZ), controversy grew over not only the new administration's alleged overreliance on czars, but also whether the staffing practice itself was constitutional (Vaughn and Villalobos 2012).

Several years later, the furor over czars in the Obama White House has largely subsided, but the czar phenomenon itself remains cloaked in misunderstanding. In this article, I attempt to resolve much of the uncertainty and unease surrounding the roles policy czars have played and continue to play in the contemporary presidency. In doing so I first discuss what constitutes a czar. I then examine why czars have been controversial and, in light of that controversy, provide a theoretical explanation for why presidents continue to use them. Finally, I conclude with a discussion of the key factors involved in successful czar policy leadership and how presidents can better utilize their czars, suggestions that can help enhance presidential success while minimizing public controversy.

Defining "Czar"

The term "czar" has been bandied about enough by politicos that it has become accepted shorthand for an influential administration official involved in a central policy area. For example, former George H. W. Bush deputy press secretary Alixe Glen notes a czar is "someone who can run it all. In a town like Washington that has so many fiefdoms and committees with long acronyms, calling someone simply a 'czar' gets the point across" (Trausch 1989). Obama administration spokesman Tommy Vietor sounded a similar refrain as he sought to tame the aforementioned staffing controversy in the administration's early days: "The term 'czar' is largely a media creation to make jobs that have existed under multiple administrations sound more exciting. Every president since Nixon has hired smart and qualified people to coordinate between agencies and the White House" (Markman 2009). This opinion appears to be shared across the ideological spectrum, as Gene Healy (2009) of the libertarian CATO Institute suggests that "'czar' is a media-coined, catchall term for presidential assistants tasked with coordinating policy on issues that cut across departmental lines" and Bradley Patterson (2009)--whose government service included stints in the Eisenhower, Nixon, and Ford administrations--has testified that "'czar' is not an official government title of anybody; it is a vernacular of executive branch public administration, harking back--in one account--at least to the Coolidge years. It is a label now used loosely hereabouts, especially by the media. …

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