The Czaring of America

Salena Zito
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Posted: Jul 12, 2009 12:00 AM

Among the many things that have changed in Washington since Barack Obama took over is the overwhelming “czaring” of key confidantes and power-brokers to the president.

The czars of imperial Russia were unelected emperors who ruled without oversight. So what is their role in a democratic country?

Well, in a way, they are the same thing – presidential appointees who are not required to go before Congress for approval.

The Obama press office sternly pushes back on the “czar” title, noting that it is not an internal word used to describe personnel, urging the press to be cautious and clear, and saying that it is “you folks” – reporters – who call them czars, not the White House.

Czars have been used since FDR persuaded Jimmy Byrnes to leave the U.S. Supreme Court to become head of the Office of Economic Stabilization. It’s just that most administrations haven’t used as many as Obama has so far.

Right now, 21 or so “special assistants” have been hand-picked by the president and don’t need Senate approval.

We have a car czar, an energy czar, an urban czar, a TARP czar. We also have a drug czar, a stimulus-accountability czar, a regulatory czar, a terrorism czar – and, yes, even a Guantanamo Bay-closure czar. There are about 12 more, but you get the picture.

The problem with czars, no matter who sits in the White House, is that Congress has no way to hold them accountable. As Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W. Va., said, they can threaten our constitutional system of checks and balances.

Professor Patrick Wolf finds it quite strange that so many high-ranking administrators in the Obama administration have been characterized by the president or the press as czars.

“Why would we, in America, willfully promote such a title for many of our federal officials,” asks Wolf, a University of Arkansas political science professor.

Good question. The old czars were rulers of far-flung empires who, more often than not, were not very effective.

Among modern U.S. presidents, Richard Nixon famously tried to reorganize his entire cabinet into a small set of "super-agencies" headed by czar-like uber-secretaries, Wolf says, “But the reorganization was widely seen as a Nixonian power-grab and was rejected by Congress.”

Czars can have as much power as a president chooses to give them – and you will never find a czar crossing swords publicly with a White House without being very publicly deposed.

An irony exists here: Czars have no command authority. They are basically an Obama public-relations move to create positions of responsibility over seemingly intractable policy problems – and a sense that progress is being made because someone is in charge.

In other words, Obama’s “czaring” of America shows he is serious about appearing to be serious about solving many of our problems.

“Most czars only have the authority to publicize problems and possible solutions and urge administrative agencies to take certain actions,” says Wolf. Yet appointing policy czars also can be a substitute for concrete action, he cautions.

Perhaps if an Obama policy czar actually takes one of the nation’s problems by the horns – as former U.S. surgeon general C. Everett Koop did in the Reagan administration – then some good may come from appointing czars.

Acting as a health-policy czar for Reagan, Dr. Koop focused public attention on such health issues as smoking and AIDS, even though he had little real authority.

“If a czar can do that – identify a few crucial threats within his or her area of responsibility and publicize those relentlessly – then (he) can make a difference,” says Wolf.