Did Obama appoint a Cabinet czar?

What happens when someone with no executive experience takes over the toughest executive job in the world?  Since we’ve not seen that situation in most of our lifetimes — even John Kennedy, the last President elected with no executive experience in government or the private sector, had some command experience in the Navy — we had little hard evidence to predict failure to manage the executive branch of the US government, but it was rather easy to presume that on-the-job training at that level would be problematic, to say the least.  Today, the Washington Post reports that even Barack Obama’s own Cabinet has been so mismanaged that Obama had to create a new position to run it for him:

During the first two years of President Obama‘s term, the administration fully embraced just a few of his superstar picks – people such as Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. But many more agency chiefs conducted their business in relative anonymity, sometimes after running afoul of White House officials.

Both sides were deeply disgruntled. Agency heads privately complained that the White House was a “fortress” that was unwilling to accept input and that micromanaged their departments. Senior administration advisers rolled their eyes in staff meetings at the mention of certain Cabinet members, participants said. …

The larger mission is to make the dealings between the Cabinet and the White House more functional, several senior officials said. Daley, a former commerce secretary himself, has been calling agency heads for input, asking about the process over the past two years – and promising that it will change.

At the same time, the White House recently created the position of Cabinet communications director, appointing media adviser Tom Gavin to the job. The goal, according to the official statement, is “to better coordinate with and utilize members of the Cabinet” and is a “high priority.”

It’s difficult to know where to start with this.  First, managing access to the President is the job of the chief of staff, and the person responsible for managing the CoS is the President.  Anne Kornblut reports that Daley’s predecessor, Rahm Emanuel, thought the Cabinet was “useless” and bypassed them in favor of the Obama inner circle.  Oddly, it didn’t occur to Obama to change this, according to Daley, who said in an interview that Obama told him that “‘I want to see these people more often.”  It sounds as though Emanuel ran Obama rather than the other way around.

Also, remember that this deals specifically with the Cabinet, not career officials running lower-rung bureaucracies.  These are Obama’s own choices to run the major agencies of his administration.  The fact that Obama needs an intervention to deal with his own hand-picked staff tells us all we need to know about Obama’s growth in executive management over the last two years.

Does that make Gavin a “czar”?  Not really, at least not in an objectionable sense.  The coordination of a President’s Cabinet with the White House falls entirely within presidential authority, and Obama can have his staff handle those duties as he sees fit.  In fact, the irony here is that one big reason that Cabinet officials feel isolated is because of the explosion of czars in the Obama administration:

Part of the problem, people on both sides said, has been an abundance of issue specialists – the “czars” – who manage matters on the environment and the economy within the West Wing. “The White House loops people out. The czars keep people from getting in,” said one senior Democratic official who has fielded such complaints from three agency heads. “The level of frustration is pretty high.”

We saw a hint of this when Judd Gregg accepted and then declined Obama’s offer to become Commerce Secretary at the beginning of his term.  Gregg initially accepted, and then discovered that Obama had carved him out of input on the Porkulus package as well as control of the Census.  Gregg would have just served as window dressing while his czars exert all of the real authority.  Anyone who had worked in a management capacity in nearly any context would have predicted exactly that kind of conflict on the staff.

Basically, Gavin will provide the kind of executive talent that Obama lacks.  It’s an embarrassment, and a reminder why Americans usually choose governors and other proven executives for the top job, rather than a talentless rookie.

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