Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Blame Obama, Not Lincoln (or the GOP)

Monica Potts has been following food safety, and is dismayed that the nominee for USDA undersecretary in that area remains unconfirmed.  Here's the timeline: Barack Obama took office on January 20, 2009.  He appointed Elisabeth Hagen in late January...2010.  She was approved by the Senate Ag Committee on June 30.  She still awaits confirmation by the full Senate.

Whose fault is this?  Well, yes, Republicans are trying to obstruct a variety of executive branch nominees, and Blanche Lincoln, chair of the Ag Committee, probably could have acted more quickly.  But the truth is the administration has signaled again and again that these nominees are just not a very high priority, and it's hardly surprising that Senate Democrats have responded by allowing GOP holds and other stalling methods to succeed.  If Barack Obama wants a fully staffed government, then he should be nominating candidates for all openings promptly, and raising the cost to Senators for stalling by fighting for his nominees publicly and by threatening (and using, if necessary) recess appointments.  It's really that simple.  I'm not sure whether Obama has been mistakenly deferring to supposedly fragile Senate egos, or if he really doesn't understand that these nominations are collectively very important, or if it's bad staff work, or what, but it continues to be a serious failing of the administration.

I'll add another thing.  Everyone was jabbering yesterday Robert Gibbs took a shot at the "professional left."  As you can probably guess, I don't think any of it matters very much to anything, really.  But I do think that one of the ways that presidents keep their core constituencies happy at relatively low cost is by using the administrative machinery of the bureaucracy to produce benefits for supporters.  In fact, even without specific benefits, supporters are apt to be happy with the administration if the record on appointments is good.  Not just because it hints at future good results, but because in relatively small issue communities personal connections count, and if someone from the community is gets a good administration job, she and her friends are likely to be personally very pleased by it.  Would elite-level liberals be always thrilled with Obama if there were a couple hundred extra smooth, rapid appointments over the last eighteen months?  Of course not, but I'm just saying: it couldn't hurt. 


  1. Well put. I've often wondered if Obama's lack of executive experience has something to do with this. Generally speaking, governors and mayors are much more attuned than legislators to the day-to-day workings of government administration, and to its importance.

    If I recall correctly (weak presidential candidate, pretty good governor) Mike Dukakis, particularly in his 2nd term, had a reputation for appointing talented people throughout his administration. Again, if I recall correctly, Nick Mitropoulos was his personnel/patronage "go-to" guy.

    Mitropoulos' primary job was to search constantly for talented people to work in the administration---in particular, people who would also be respected by/approved by key constituencies (labor, environmental, business, municipalities, etc.). I don't get the sense Obama has anyone like that.

  2. Well, it doesn't say much for Obama's intelligence that he wouldn't recognize, 20 months into his admin, the importance of filling jobs in gov't with quality people. But I don't think his intelligence or experience or lack of same is really the issue here. Nor do I think he suffers from not having enough good names submitted to him because of not having some super talent scout working in the WH.

    The fact he's named the quality Eliz Hagen, as well as others previously (Van Jones, Dawn Johnsen, etc), tends to suggest the problem is not that he isn't being adequately counseled on personnel.

    So too Obama's nominating of two outstanding people for the fed courts in the 9th Cir -- Edward Chen for district and Goodwin Liu for appellate. Obama may well have been aware of these two from his own experience teaching law or had them brought to his attention. In either case, the problem is the same -- he names them then leaves the nominations to slowly twist in the wind once a few Repubs raise objections.

    My guess about this curious state of affairs is that Obama just doesn't want to spend any more political capital than necessary fighting for these lower profile positions. A matter of overly cautious political calculation, imo, plus a reflexive tendency in this admin to take the liberal base's ultimate support for granted.

    As JB suggests, just pushing for a few people already nominated, or making recess appointments, would do wonders for Obama with the liberal base while it would also probably improve O's growing reputation for political timidity. But so far there's nothing. Perhaps he's saving naming Eliz Warren for September when midterm voters are paying more attention? Nominating Warren, plus recess appointing Liu and Chen, should be the minimum we should expect from this president.

  3. How is Obama doing on appointing people at the next tier down, positions that don't require Senate confirmation. If those are also lagging, then he isn't much focused on executive branch appointments. But if those are up to speed, it fits more with him not wanting to spend political capital on nomination fights.


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