Monday, August 29, 2011

Safe As Houses. If Houses Were Safe These Days.

Ezra Klein has a really interesting post today on Barack Obama's nomination of Alan Krueger to chair the Council of Economic Advisers.
[O]f course the Obama administration chose Alan Krueger. Why would anyone have ever thought they would have chosen anyone else? The White House has hewed to a very specific personnel-replacement strategy, and Krueger fits it perfectly.
Klein cites a variety of previous replacements for those who left the administration: Jack Lew, Leon Panetta, Gene Sperling, Bruce Reed...the list goes on and on. What Obama values is previous experience in Democratic administrations.

What Klein doesn't mention is that this is perhaps in part a response to the broken system of executive branch nominations; it's presumably easier to get someone through the original vetting process and the Senate if they've already gone through it.

And you know what I think about that: not only should it be easier to get executive branch nominations through the Senate, but presidents should be much, much less risk-averse about the original vetting process. There are really two problems here. One is a brand new one about partisan opposition in the Senate to large numbers of uncontroversial nominees; that could be solved by returning to a simple majority standard for confirmations, and it should be. The other, however, goes back to the George H.W. Bush administration and John Tower, and it's about controversial nominees (whether the "controversy" was entirely contrived or not). Here, I think that presidents are making a big mistake. A failed nomination, or an appointee who is confirmed but then resigns when a scandal is exposed, is a short-lived Washington story that virtually no one in the rest of the nation pays any attention to at all. The costs to a president of working hard to avoid any potentially controversial nominee are, in my view, much higher than the costs of occasionally allowing a few of those choices to embarrass the administration.

All that said: I tend to disagree with Klein's view that relying on experience is particularly a problem right now for Obama. Klein is concerned that the administration needs new voices in order to provide fresh perspectives, and I agree that it's certainly a problem for a presidency to have a limited mix of advice coming in...but I'm not sure that the old hands are united in a point of view. As far as I can tell, most of the factions within the mainstream of the Democratic Party are represented. It's also an advantage, I think, that several of these usual suspects returned to their current posts from outside the government, so they've had a recent taste of a more expanded conversation. Meanwhile, all that experience continues to pay off in an unusually low number of scandals and gaffes.

Of course, scandals and gaffes are less important, in most cases, than policy success. My strong impression, however, is that the key constraints on policy right now are not lack of White House imagination, but, well, Congress. Which is not to say, of course, that the administration couldn't do better with the cards it holds.

At any rate, for better or worse, I think Klein is absolutely right to notice the pattern, and to point out that it's meaningful.


  1. Exactly how is vetting related to nominations?

    I mean, it's nice to know that a vetting 12 years ago means they don't keep sex slaves or anything like that. But 12 years ago they didn't have the ability to post their pictures on facebook or a thousand other little embarrassing things. Or, maybe, just become a bit corrupt since Clinton I.

    And I don't think Republicans are blocking nomination based on vetting principles. They are blocking nominations based on they don't like people. Rich Cordray will have an impeccable record. Multiple term office holder and exposed to a lot of scurrility He's not being released because of some quiz-show scandal we don't know about...

  2. They're not so spectacular, that's for sure.

  3. Klein is correct that Obama's picks fit a template, but he inaccurately describes the template. Krueger is just another lefty academic, and that's what Obama has consistently picked.

    Sotomayor was a pure anomaly. Obama prefers unaccomplished academics, like himself.

    Yes, many of these lefty academics have bounced around the government bubble, as Klein mentions. But few of them have ever bounced in the real world.


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