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Archive for August, 2010

The politicized presidency

Posted by David Kassel on August 9, 2010

Using the term “politicized presidency” might sound at first like an exercise in redundancy.

What presidency isn’t politicized?  But Donald Moynihan and Alasdair Roberts draw a distinction between “politicized” and “political.” 

In “The Triumph of Loyalty Over Competence: The Bush Administration and the Exhaustion of the Politicized Presidency”  (July/August 2010 issue of Public Administration Review), the authors make a case that the administration of George W. Bush went further than any others in history in subordinating hiring and decision-making to political considerations.

The result was a disaster, not only for Bush’s popularity toward the end of his second term and potentially for his legacy, but for the institution of the presidency itself.

The question the authors leave unanswered is how far the Obama administration intends to go, or has gone, to de-politicize the office of the presidency.  They point out that Barack Obama made an early effort to avoid shows of excessive partisanship, particularly in his decision to retain a Bush appointee, Robert Gates, as secretary of defense.  But politicization of the presidency may only be in remission, they say.

I would suggest that in one respect, Obama appears to have shown the same impulse as Bush and other recent presidents; and that is the impulse to reduce the power of career bureaucrats though privatization of governmental functions.  (See Rick Cohen’s interesting series in The Nonprofit Quarterly on the Obama administration’s push for more privatization and free-market approaches in public housing services, education, and other governmental functions.) 

It may not be the case that Obama is pushing privatization for the same political-loyalty-inspired reasons as Bush.  But that may not make a lot of difference to the career employees who lose their jobs as a result.

Moynihan and Roberts state that starting with Andrew Jackson, the decision to politicize a presidency has been connected with a distrust of the federal bureaucracy and of career employees, who are seen as hostile to presidential goals because of professional and ideological biases.  

They suggest at least three basic characteristics of a politicized presidency: 1) Expansion of the number of political appointees in the administration, with more weight given to loyalty than merit in hiring; 2) the transfer or termination of career officials in the bureaucracy who are deemed untrustworthy; and 3) the centralization of key decision-making in the White House.

It would be hard for Obama to top George W. Bush in the politicization arena.  Moynihan’s and Roberts’ article doesn’t provide new disclosures about  Bush.   But they put enough examples together that the case against the Bush presidency appears fairly persuasive.  We still clearly remember the debacle of the appointment of Michael Brown to head FEMA, for instance.  Brown and other senior appointees in FEMA lacked emergency management expertise, the authors note, but had “significant political campaign experience.”

Then there were the forced resignations of the U.S. Attorneys and the hiring at DoJ of politically connected yet inexperienced personnel such as Kyle Sampson, a classmate of Vice President Dick Cheney’s daughter, and Monica Goodling, who had been an opposition researcher for the Republican National Committee.  

Moynihan and Roberts also recount the case of Bradley Schlozman, a political appointee at the DoJ’s Civil Rights Division, who apparently had high-level personnel hiring and firing responsibilities there.   In email comments, Schlozman repeatedly referred to conservative applicants as “real Americans.”  He also wrote, regarding existing employees, that, “My tentative plans are to gerrymander all of those crazy libs right out of the section.”  He apparently had quite a bit of success in doing so.

And then there were the political considerations that colored the hiring of staff to manage the U.S. reconstruction efforts in Iraq.   Moynihan and Roberts rely heavily here on Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s excellent book, “Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone,” for details on the White House’s insistence that job applicants in the reconstruction management effort be screened for loyalty to the Republican Party and the president.

As I point out in my own book, Managing Public Sector Projects,” the Iraq reconstruction has been marred by poor to nonexistent planning, shoddy and delayed project work, and a failure to properly account for billions of dollars in U.S. taxpayer money spent there.

In addition to hiring politically connected personnel, there is also the “assault on rationality in decision making” that the Bush administration engaged in as part of its politicization efforts.  These ranged from alterations by the EPA of scientific reports on climate change to opposition by the Food and Drug Administration to the vaccination of young women against the human papillomavirus, the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States.

Moynihan’s and Roberts’ article might be no more than an interesting discussion of recent history, were it not that they ask the larger question whether the politicized presidency is on the wane or in remission.  The article also started me wondering whether some of the characteristics of politicization may have also spread to the private sector.

In today’s highly competitive job market, we hear, for instance, about applicants “dumbing down” their resumes in order to persuade potential employers that they won’t leave for higher-level opportunities when the economy improves.  In other words, are employers looking these days–as the Bush administration did a few years ago– for loyalty over expertise and experience?


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