All the President’s Men (and Women): Electing a Cast of Thousands

A president's Cabinet, such as President Obama's shown here in 2009, is just the start of an army of presidential appointees who come into government.

At this point in a presidential campaign, our sense is dominated by images of candidates shaking hands at a diner in New Hampshire, or working a crowd at the state fair in Iowa. Given the kind of retail politics that power these early days in the road to the White House, our view of the candidates can be highly personal.

To be sure, come next November we’ll be pulling the lever for the one man or woman we want to lead our country for the next four years. The truth is, though, that whomever wins on Election Day actually will sit atop a massive federal government, and that winner will bring in an army of professionals to Washington, to help him, or her, in that task.

The hiring that a new president will undertake is not limited to a White House staff and a cabinet of advisers. Those appointments only lead to deputy secretaries, assistant secretaries, deputy assistant secretaries, commissioners, and so on and so forth, all across the federal government.

Other than perhaps our quadrennial “veepstakes,” the chatter of whom the eventual Republican nominee will select as his or her running mate (and maybe some peripheral rhetoric about the kinds of Supreme Court justices he or she might choose), not much attention usually is paid to this cast of thousands until after the election. Yet, since in some real sense we are electing not only an individual, but an entire population in government, who these folks could be, and where they come from, ought to get more thought and discussion during the campaign.

Washington has established a sort of unofficial revolving-door system which has helped with solving the staffing issue. When a presidency of one political party ends, many of those appointees go across town to fill posts at the various think tanks, institutes, and other such various and sundry political and policy organizations which exist here, all the while waiting for their next turn at bat. Simultaneously, those of the incoming party who had been so hibernating during the previous administration, come back into government to fill so many of these politically appointed posts. So it is that the Obama administration is filled with so many familiar faces from the Clinton era, for instance, or that George W. Bush and his team reached back to so many alumni from his father’s administration.

¬†And, the door could swing once more next year, if Barack Obama is defeated for a second term. This crosstown pattern could well re-emerge, particularly if an establishment Republican like Mitt Romney were to win the presidency. So many former Bushies, waiting in the wings as they are at the conservative policy shops around town, could be recalled to active duty, with some of the usual playing of musical chairs which also occurs. A former Bush deputy Treasury official, for example, wouldn’t necessarily just go back to his old job, but might move up to a White House economic adviser’s post; that sort of thing.

This pattern could be broken, however, depending on who the Republican victor turns out to be. Rep. Michele Bachmann has taken such a hard anti-government line as to call for the elimination of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Given that stance, were she to become president, who would Bachmann nominate to lead the EPA? Would she perhaps, symbolically or otherwise, simply not name anyone to be her EPA administrator and leave the post vacant?

More significantly, what if Texas Gov. Rick Perry finds himself president-elect? We’ve been told that there’s some animosity between Perry’s team and the old Bush crowd, for instance. If that’s true, would Perry be less inclined to reach back to former Bush appointees to fill his government? If so, who does he pick instead? Would he simply fly in his state-level team en masse from Texas and try to get them through Senate confirmation for federal jobs? Does he turn to tea party activists (and to be kind, I’ll call them “lightly qualified”) to fill federal posts? (Amy Kremer of the Tea Party Express for Treasury Secretary, anyone?)

Given the power the tea party wields within the GOP generally, that begs the question of what jobs tea partyers would be asked to fill in any new Republican administration. We Americans deserve to know just what role the tea party might play, and the influence it would exert, if allowed for the first time into the executive branch.

As of now, these are all somewhat hypothetical questions. But they are important questions for which voters ought to be demanding answers.


Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade. Capitol Idea is his regular column from Washington. This article was first published as All the President’s Men (and Women): Electing a Cast of Thousandson Blogcritics.




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