A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Czar Search


Q: Does Obama have an unprecedented number of "czars"?

A: "Czar" is media lingo, not an official title. But our research shows that George Bush’s administration had more "czars" than the Obama administration.

FULL QUESTION

A friend of mine sent me a link claiming that Obama has more czars than any other president ever and he is trying to turn the USA into a dictatorship. Please give me confirmation so I can give it to her that she has no reason to fear. Does hiring czars allow a president to bypass Congress for approval? And does President Obama have more than any other president?

FULL ANSWER

It’s meaningless to ask a question about what "hiring czars" allows a president to do, because presidents don’t hire czars. "Czar" is a label bestowed by the media – and sometimes the administration – as a shorthand for the often-cumbersome titles of various presidential advisers, assistants, office directors, special envoys and deputy secretaries. (After all, what makes for a better headline – "weapons czar" or "undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics"?)

There’s been a certain fascination with calling Obama’s advisers and appointees "czars." Fox News host Glenn Beck has identified 32 Obama czars on his Web site, whom he has characterized as a collective "iceberg" threatening to capsize the Constitution. Beck and other television hosts aren’t the only ones crying czar, either. Six Republican senators recently sent a letter to the White House saying that the creation of czar posts "circumvents the constitutionally established process of ‘advise and consent.’ " Republican Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah issued a press release saying that czars "undermine the constitution." And Texas Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison wrote an opinion column in the Washington Post complaining about the czar menace, including the factually inaccurate claim that only "a few of them have formal titles."

The habit of using "czar" to refer to an administration official dates back at least to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but the real heyday of the czar came during President George W. Bush’s administration. The appellation was so popular that several news organizations reported on the rise of the czar during the Bush years, including NPR, which ran a piece called "What’s With This Czar Talk?" and Politico, which published an article on the evolution of the term. The latter, written during the 2008 presidential campaign, points out that czars are "really nothing new. They’ve long been employed in one form or another to tackle some of the nation’s highest-profile problems." Politico quotes author and political appointments expert James Bovard saying that the subtext of "czar" has changed from insult to praise: "It’s a real landmark sign in political culture to see this change from an odious term to one of salvation.”

Now it’s turned odious again, with Republican senators calling czars unconstitutional and cable hosts like Beck and Sean Hannity characterizing them as shadowy under-the-table appointees used by Obama to dodge the usual approval processes. In fact, of the 32 czars Beck lists:

  • Nine were confirmed by the Senate, including the director of national intelligence ("intelligence czar"), the chief performance officer ("government performance czar") and the deputy interior secretary ("California water czar").
  • Eight more were not appointed by the president – the special advisor to the EPA overseeing its Great Lakes restoration plan ("Great Lakes czar") is EPA-appointed, for instance, and the assistant secretary for international affairs and special representative for border affairs ("border czar") is appointed by the secretary of homeland security.
  • Fifteen of the "czarships" Beck lists, including seven that are in neither of the above categories, were created by previous administrations. (In some cases, as with the "economic czar," the actual title – in this case, chairman of the president’s economic recovery advisory board – is new, but there has been an official overseeing the area in past administrations. In others, as with the special envoy to Sudan, the position is old but the "czar" appellation is new.)
  • In all, of the 32 positions in Beck’s list, only eight are Obama-appointed, unconfirmed, brand new czars.

These new "czars" include the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan; the director of recovery for auto communities and workers; the senior advisor for the president’s Automotive Task Force; the special adviser for green jobs, enterprise, and innovation at the White House Council on Environmental Quality; the federal chief information officer; the chair of the Recovery Act Transparency and Accountability Board; the White House director of urban affairs; and the White House coordinator for weapons of mass destruction, security and arms control. Or, as Glenn Beck would have it, the Afghanistan czar, the auto recovery czar, the car czar, the embattled green jobs czar, the information czar, the stimulus accountability czar, the urban affairs czar and the WMD policy czar.

Some of these new positions would have been meaningless in a previous administration. Previous presidents didn’t need an Automotive Task Force or a Recovery Act Transparency and Accountability Board. These positions are similar to George W. Bush’s "World Trade Center health czar" and "Gulf Coast reconstruction czar" in that they are new advisory positions created to deal with temporary challenges facing the administration. Others do represent new long-term concerns (urban affairs, climate change), but the act of appointing advisers to manage new areas of interest is hardly unique to the Obama administration. The Bush administration, for instance, created the "faith-based czar" and the "cybersecurity czar."

Another thing: Beck counts among his 32 "czars" three who have not been called "czars" by reporters at all, except in stories claiming that the Obama administration has lots of "czars." We’ve compiled a FactCheck.org list that discounts these positions, which seem to be "czars" only in the context of media czar-hysteria. (Our list also adds three czars Beck’s research didn’t find – a "diversity czar," a "manufacturing czar" and an "Iran czar.")

As for Obama having an unprecedented number of czars, the Bush administration had even more appointed or nominated positions whose holders were called "czars" by the media. The DNC has released a Web video claiming that there were 47, but it’s counting multiple holders of the same position. We checked the DNC’s list against Nexis and other news records, and found a total of 35 Bush administration positions that were referred to as "czars" in the news media. (Our list of confirmed "czars," with news media sources cited, is here.) Again, many of these advisory positions were not new – what was new was the "czar" shorthand. Like the Obama czars, the Bush czars held entirely prosaic administrative positions: special envoys, advisers, office heads, directors, secretaries. The preponderance of czars earned both ridicule and concern in editorials and in media, but no objections from Congress.

Read FactCheck.org’s list of confirmed Bush and Obama czars

Update, Sept. 25: To be sure, Republicans are not the only ones complaining. We would be remiss not to mention a Feb. 25 letter from Democratic senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, in which he cautioned Obama against appointing too many czars.

Jess Henig

Sources

"List of Obama’s Czars." Glennbeck.com. 21 Aug 2009, accessed 21 Sep 2009.

Lerer, Lisa. "GOP senators seek end to czars." Politico. 16 Sep 2009.

"Bennett Says President’s ‘Czars’ Undermine the Constitution." Press release. Utah Sen. Bob Bennett. 15 Sep 2009.

Hutchison, Kay Bailey. "Czarist Washington." The Washington Post. 13 Sep 2009.

"Food: The Tenth Czar." Time. 5 Apr 1943.

"What’s With This ‘Czar’ Talk?" NPR All Things Considered 16 May 2007.

Lovley, Erika. "Czar (n): An insult; a problem-solver." Politico. 21 Oct 2008.

"The Bush Czars." Democrats.org. 16 Sep 2009, accessed 21 Sep 2009.

Dunn, Anita. "Reality Check: The Truth About Czars." White House blog. 16 Sep 2009, accessed 21 Sep 2009.