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02.27.13

Obama’s Hiring Debacle

The president has been extremely slow to fill cabinet-level jobs. Miranda Green on the critical posts that remain open—and why Obama might be taking so long.

The Senate has received plenty of criticism lately for slowing down the confirmations of Obama’s nominees to run the Pentagon (Chuck Hagel) and the CIA (John Brennan). Yet even as Washington has focused on the Obama selections who’ve been delayed on Capitol Hill, little attention has been paid to the rather extraordinary number of cabinet positions—it currently stands at eight—for which Obama hasn’t even bothered to name nominees.

Experts say that Obama’s appointment pace is, by recent historical standards, extremely slow. “Looking all the way back to the Kennedy term in detail, I have never seen a second term start like this,” says Paul Light, a public service professor at NYU. Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, concurs. “We have seen it before, but I do believe President Obama has been slower than past presidents,” he says.

Prior to Obama, the worst recent offender was probably Bill Clinton. “There was a lot of chaos at the beginning of his first term and that slowed the process down. It was chaotic at every level,” West says. “It was hard to get individuals named and then it was hard to get them through the process.” And yet even amidst this chaos, Clinton had managed to announce all but two of his cabinet selections by the beginning of March 1993. Obama, by contrast, has failed to name his selections for Commerce secretary, Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Labor secretary, Energy secretary, U.S. trade representative, Office of Management and Budget director, Transportation secretary, and Small Business Administration chief.

“There is a domino effect. When you don’t have the secretary in position, then it’s harder to get the deputy and the assistants.”

Two of the better recent presidents on this front were George W. Bush and Richard Nixon. “Bush was very effective on the nomination process,” West says. “He understood how important it was to get his top people on the field so they put a lot of effort on getting their nominations up quickly.”

So what, exactly, accounts for Obama’s comparatively slow approach? I heard a few theories from experts. One is that Obama simply has more important things on his plate. “Appointments take a back seat to agenda both on a president’s team and in the Senate,” says Terry Sullivan, political science professor at the University of North Carolina. “So, the appointments process is just another price we pay for the disastrous financial situation generated by the deep, deep hole we got into with massive tax cuts alongside unfunded war expenses.”

Another factor, West says, may be that Obama is pickier about who he will consider than past presidents were. He has imposed “ethics rules” requiring potential appointees to disclose up to three years of tax returns, and he typically won’t appoint nominees who have ties to lobbying firms. He has also shown a desire to nominate people who aren’t career politicians or policymakers—like Sally Jewell, president of the REI chain and Obama’s nominee to run the Interior Department. Such nontraditional picks may take longer to figure out than more conventional ones would.

But whatever the reasons for the president’s approach, there are serious downsides to it. “There is a domino effect. When you don’t have the secretary in position, then it’s harder to get the deputy and the assistants,” West says. “The more delays there are at the top of the organization, it creates problems down the line.”