04.21.09

Get to Know Obama's Czars

The bailout czar? The God czar? As President Obama appoints enough czars to impress a Russian nobleman, THE DAILY BEAST has the goods on who they are and how they'll steer policy.

The bailout czar? The God czar? As President Obama appoints enough czars to impress a Russian nobleman, The Daily Beast has the goods on who they are and how they'll steer policy.

Maybe he's just worried about fending off socialism accusations, maybe he just likes delegating, but President Obama has been appointing czars at a furious rate since taking office.

While the czar-ness of various executive branch positions is somewhat ambiguous (one man’s czar is another man’s special assistant to the president), by our count Obama has appointed at least 20 czars to oversee everything from stimulus spending to faith-based initiatives. As one of Foreign Policy’s blogs recently noted, that's more czars than the Romanov dynasty, which produced only 18. Four new Obama czars have appeared in the last week alone: "border czar" Alan Bersin; "tech czar" Aneesh Chopra; "performance czar" Jeffrey Zients; and "TARP Czar" Herb Allison.

The strange practice of naming American officials after 19th-century Russian rulers dates back to at least Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, when various wartime administrators were handed the title by the media. The administrator of the Office of Price Administration, Leon Henderson, for example, was depicted in cartoons as “czar of prices.” Richard Nixon's "energy czars" John Love and William Simon gave the term new life in the 1970, and Congress' creation of a "drug czar" position in the 1980s continued the trend. At one point in 2004, Rep. Henry Waxman asked the General Accounting Office to offer an opinion on whether the popular use of the term "drug czar" violated American law as an "unlawful self-aggrandizement." The GAO’s general counsel determined that the phrase was legitimate, as it had become popularized by the press and did not originate in the government itself.

Since you can’t tell Obama’s czars apart without a program, we've provided a rundown of some of the most prominent and the government fiefdoms they command.

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David McNew / Getty Images

Alan Bersin, Border Czar
Last Wednesday, President Obama selected Bersin to try to stem the flow of guns and drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border. Bersin's claim to fame is Operation Gatekeeper, a major border crackdown on the San Diego-area border in 1994 that he helped coordinate while working from a similar position in the Clinton administration. The policy diverted immigrant crossings away from San Diego, but also drew harsh condemnation from human-rights groups, which blamed an increase in deaths among migrants on the resultant shift to more remote desert crossings.

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Eric Thayer / Reuters

Steve Rattner, Car Czar
Steve Rattner is the most troubled of Obama's many picks thanks to a burgeoning kickbacks scandal. A former New York Times journalist and investment banker, he was picked by Obama to oversee the government's efforts to rescue America's flailing car companies. Rattner was reportedly behind the White House's recent decision to demand GM's Rick Wagoner resign as CEO, signaling a hard line against simple handouts for the auto industry. Earlier this month, it came to light that the SEC and New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo are both investigating a case in which officials in the New York state comptroller's officer allegedly accepted millions of dollars in bribes in exchange for investing in various funds, one of which was an affiliate of Quadrangle, a firm Rattner co-founded. Rattner, however, hasn't been targeted in the investigation and Obama says the White House was aware of the investigation before they hired him. As columnist Michael Kinsley writes in the Washington Post: "Before we decide whether to hang him or chop off his head, I think we can all agree that [Rattner] is totally innocent." Kinsley argues that "Somewhere there's a line where legal bribery turns into illegal bribery"--a line that Rattner didn't cross.

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Aneesh Chopra, Photo: AFP / Newscom

Vivek Kundra, Aneesh Chopra, and Jeffrey Zients, Tech Czars
Technology is so important to the Obama White House that the administration has seen fit to create not one but three czars to be the nation's tech support line. Chopra and Zients, who were announced Saturday, will team up with the already-appointed information czar Vivek Kundra. The trio is tasked with "setting technology policy across the government and using technology to improve security, ensure transparency, and lower costs," according to Obama. Items on their agenda include using social networking sites to facilitate communication between citizens and government, encouraging agencies to share relevant information, and generally streamlining office operations for the federal government. In Chopra and Kundra's case, czar titles are nothing new: Chopra was previously Virginia's tech czar while Kundra was the District of Columbia's. Zients is the founder of an investment firm, Portfolio Logic, and previously led a group of investors that unsuccessfully attempted to buy the city's baseball team, the Washington Nationals.

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Earl Devaney, Photo: Charles Dharapak / AP Photo

Herb Allison and Earl Devaney, Bailout Czars
The twin planks of the White House's economic-rescue plan, TARP and the stimulus package, have necessitated the creation of new czars. This week, Obama picked Fannie Mae CEO Herb Allison, 65, to take over for President Bush's TARP czar, Neel Kashkari, and manage the $700 billion bank-rescue fund. Earl Devaney, who is overseeing the stimulus package, seems just like the kind of guy you'd want guarding your cash. The new stimulus accountability czar is a former police officer and Secret Service agent who previously investigated notorious lobbyist Jack Abramoff. He'll be tasked with making sure that the $787 billion in taxpayer money doesn't go to waste.

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Herb Allison, Photo: Mary Altaffer / AP Photo

Herb Allison and Earl Devaney, Bailout Czars
The twin planks of the White House's economic-rescue plan, TARP and the stimulus package, have necessitated the creation of new czars. This week, Obama picked Fannie Mae CEO Herb Allison, 65, to take over for President Bush's TARP czar, Neel Kashkari, and manage the $700 billion bank-rescue fund. Earl Devaney, who is overseeing the stimulus package, seems just like the kind of guy you'd want guarding your cash. The new stimulus accountability czar is a former police officer and Secret Service agent who previously investigated notorious lobbyist Jack Abramoff. He'll be tasked with making sure that the $787 billion in taxpayer money doesn't go to waste.

Joshua DuBois, God Czar
Given the headaches religion has caused Obama—Muslim rumors, radical preachers—it's easy to forget that one major source of Obama's political appeal when he entered the scene was his ease with discussing faith and politics. Obama has carried the issue with him to the White House, appointing DuBois as his faith-based czar to head up the office created by former President Bush. Under DuBois, who is just 26 years old, the office is set to shift its mission from helping religious organizations secure federal funds under Bush to running a policy think tank under Obama. This month, the office brought together several dozen religious leaders from a variety of political backgrounds and faiths for a round of briefings with DuBois. According to Time magazine, the group will seek to generate policy recommendations on four issues: "domestic poverty, responsible fatherhood, reducing the need for abortion and preventing unintended pregnancy, and interreligious dialogue and cooperation."

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Gil Kerlikowske, Photo; J. Scott Applewhite / AP Photo

Gil Kerlikowske, Drug Czar
The position of drug czar is one close to Joe Biden’s heart. Biden sponsored legislation to create the position under then-President Reagan and reportedly coined the term. The new drug czar is Gil Kerlikowske, who previously served as chief of police in Seattle. The Obama administration has promised a new emphasis on rehabilitation for drug offenders, but faces a violent drug war along the Mexican border as well as renewed calls for legalizing pot from camps on the left and the right. Like Obama, Kerlikowske is publicly opposed to legalizing marijuana and other drugs, but his record as police chief indicates at least some leeway on the issue. Right before a 2003 local initiative in Seattle making marijuana arrests “the city's lowest law-enforcement priority” passed, Kerlikowske said that proponents of the referendum, which he opposed, were misleading voters because his police department already considered such arrests to be a low priority. He also has first-hand experience with the ravages of addiction: His own stepson has been arrested on drug charges.

Cass Sunstein, Regulatory Czar
Turning to his alma mater for help, President Obama picked Harvard Law School professor and public intellectual Cass Sunstein as regulatory czar. Sunstein, who is married to another Obama adviser, Samantha Power, is a surprisingly high-profile pick to head the obscure Office of Information & Regulatory Policy. He has authored a number of books on topics from new media to environmental safety standards, in which he's argued for a more rigorous use of cost-benefit analysis and less reliance on emotion in determining policy. President Bush's White House was famous for stifling new regulations as a matter of principle, and Sunstein is likely to apply regulations more freely and pragmatically.

Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.