Naked In A Glass House

When Barack Obama moved into the White House, a dizzying 8,000 political appointments opened up. 1,000 of these require Senate confirmation. Today, only 63 have been confirmed, and yet, according to Prof. Terry Sullivan, this is remarkable success. Sullivan, the author of Nerve Center: Lessons in Governing and executive director of the non-partisan White House Transition Project, studies the chaotic world of presidential appointments. But Sullivan is no armchair political scientist. His quantitative research and detailed briefing books, intended to smooth out the political and byzantine federal staffing process, were used by transition teams in both 2001 and 2009. Recently, I asked Prof. Sullivan about his research and what makes the 'long' transition to executive power ultimately successful.

100 days in, how is Obama stacking up on appointments compared to other presidents?
There is typically a surge in the last few days and, assuming that surge, we should anticipate a record setting performance. At this pace, they will have most of the top positions in the policy government filled and that means they will be ready (and early by comparison) to fully address the challenges facing the American government.

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It does seem as though they've learned that staffing is the biggest challenge of the first hundred days. As Clay Johnson, former deputy chief-of-staff in George W. Bush's first administration, kept saying last summer, "Personnel, personnel, personnel, get that house in order!" And they have taken that message seriously. There's been, for example, a pretty short amount of time between announcing someone and filing their paperwork.

And this has paid off in 63 Senate confirmations and the likelihood of breaking Reagan's first 100 days record of 83, maybe even what everyone says is impossible: 100 confirmations by day 100. This is a huge lead in comparison with George W. Bush, and it wasn't as if the Bush camp was unprepared. In 2001, they hit the ground running, launching the most successful transition of the post-WWII era.

Are there particular challenges Obama faces in continuing to staff the federal government?
Two major ones. The first is specific to him. The president campaigned on and set out to accomplish a transformation of the Washington community and how it relates to governing. This includes a set of restrictions on prior lobbying experience. Making these changes is not an easy thing to accomplish if you want to garner enough people with experience.

The second is typical of all transitions. Finding a balance between loyalty to "them that brung you" through a grueling presidential campaign and reliance on those that you need to take on the more complicated job of governing. That is where the plethora of Clintonites in the Obama camp has come from.

The scale of the American executive is gargantuan by comparison with any other organization. To break it down, there are 8,100 positions that the president could be involved in selecting. Many of these, however, are not policy positions. Only 1141 are sufficiently important enough to warrant the advice and consent of the US Senate. But even in this group, many do not constitute positions with central policy making responsibilities. 542 carry enough awesome responsibility to be considered "important" to governing, but now we are talking about a very rarefied group. 348 of those positions are in the big Cabinet agencies. The others are spread throughout the executive in groups like the Council of Economic Advisors, the Board of the Federal Reserve, and the EPA.

When presidents complain that the Senate is dragging its feet, should we believe them?
Dragging one's feet for one person is exercising prudence on policies that matter to others. There is a constitutional invitation to struggle built into the checks and balances system. We often focus too much attention on the few cases where this struggle might bubble to the surface as a controversy. Right now, the Senate on average is taking about 3 weeks to decide on Obama nominations. Twenty-one days is hardly dragging one's feet.

I don't know what the commensurate figures would be in business, but I bet most corporate organizations take considerably longer than three weeks to hire someone in top management. That is for organizations that, when all is said and done, only make car parts or potato chips. If the administration or the Senate makes a mistake, the foreign policy of America is damaged or soldiers die in the field.

Why is it so hard to preserve institutional memory in the White House?
Institutional memory is a luxury. No one works in the White House for more than a little bit of time and anyone who's been in the Washington governing business, someone like former Reagan chief-of-staff Jim Baker says, learning is not something you do while you're governing. Learning in the White House is like trying to drink water out of a fire hydrant. There's too much pressure, too much volume.

So you have to go outside of the process to get the perspective that you need. That is where academics come in. After the Clinton transition, a group of presidency scholars saw that we needed to compile information that would make this process better. So in 1997, Martha Kumar and I founded the White House Transition Project. We started by interviewing ex-White House staff. Then, support from the Pew Charitable Trusts allowed us to take on a number of unanticipated areas of expertise, like the appointments process, and to make this information available to the Bush and Gore campaigns in 2001.

We also bridge the unease that people sometimes feel about making it easy for the other guys. The partisan pressures can be pretty high, but given a neutral context, one which as academics we can provide, the right people will talk candidly about what they wished they had known and what in retrospect they wished they had done differently.

What advice would you give Obama looking forward?
First, be wary that you or anyone around you is ready to do this job. Changing the real estate on top of your shoulders is the biggest thing a president has to do. Get a grasp of the scale of the executive and its demands for flawless execution. Learn to substitute the labor intensive efforts of campaigning for capital intensive ones, because you will need that to keep out in front of decision-making. Let others communicate so you can learn to decide and then guard that decision-making process with jealous attention to detail. This is not easy. You're under intense scrutiny and intense pressure not to make mistakes. As one ex-White House staffer we interviewed once told us, it's like working naked in a glass house.