Barack Obama, Czars And The Great Unknown

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On Sunday, Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who has announced her resignation to run for governor in the Lone Star state, penned a piece in the Washington Post about what she called “Czarist Washington.” Read closely, and you will discover an easily overlooked undercurrent to Hutchison’s concern. She is worried less about the known actions or influence of those Obama advisers who have arbitrarily been called “czars” than about what we don’t know about the actions or influence of these people. To wit:

They hold unknown levels of power over broad swaths of policy. . . . So what do these czars do? Do they advise the president? Or do they impose the administration’s agenda on the heads of federal agencies and offices who have been vetted and confirmed by the Senate? Unfortunately — and in direct contravention of the Framers’ intentions — virtually no one can say with certainty what these individuals do or what limits are placed on their authority. We don’t know if they are influencing or implementing policy. We don’t know if they possess philosophical views or political affiliations that are inappropriate or overreaching in the context of their work.

As a political theme, this concern with what is unknown about Obama’s administration is an important one to watch, because for one reason or another, it is striking a nerve for many Americans. It does not seem to matter that Obama has not substantially changed the structure or operation of the executive branch, or, with a few exceptions, the sorts of positions he appoints. Instead, there is a pod-person-like fear at work here: Judge Obama not by what he does or says, say his critics,  but by what we don’t yet know about what he is doing.

The issue of czars, which has become a regular feature of the conservative press, has its roots in a list of 32 political appointees that was compiled by the group Taxpayers for Common Sense. It is difficult to divine the method TCS used to compile this list. It chooses 32 people, out of the more than 3,000 political appointees in the executive branch, of which more than 500 are confirmed by the Senate. The TCS list includes everyone from the top counterterrorism official at the White House John Brennan to someone named Cameron Davis, who is overseeing Great Lakes restoration at the Environmental Protection Agency. The list includes both Senate-confirmable positions, like Cass Sunstein, who is the director of the Office of Regulatory Affairs, and non-confirmable diplomats assigned to foreign hotspots like J. Scott Gration, who is working to find a solution in Sudan. It includes Paul Volker, a minor economic adviser to Obama, but leaves off Lawrence Summers, who wields enormous power within the White House shaping economic policy. There are literally thousands of other Obama appointees, with various amounts of power, who are not on the list.

Now in truth, there is little mystery about any of these people. The government is large, but for the most part it is not a black box. Many of these so-called czars, like Richard Holbrooke, a diplomatic adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan, regularly speak with journalists, hold public events and meet with foreign heads of state. If Hutchison was staying in the Senate, and actually wanted to learn about the “limits” of their “authority,” it would not be hard to figure out. Each of the 32 officials named in the Taxpayers for Common Sense document report to other officials, either inside the White House or in the various Cabinet Departments. A few meet regularly with the president. All work on matters for which the president is constitutionally permitted to act.

But Hutchinson’s concern about potential–as yet unknown–Constitutional subterfuge is not really the point here. She is running for a major office, is seeking to brand herself as a national conservative leader, and her advisers know how to spot a major vein of political gold.

Which returns us to the more interesting question of why all this talk of czars has excited a certain slice of the population. One reason is the Russian sounding word, a variation on tzars, which has been used by Republican and Democratic leaders since Richard Nixon. A second issue is Obama’s inability thus far to convince a certain segment of the population that he is who he says he is, and is doing what he says he is doing. This is what Hutchison is mining for, what Glenn Beck is spending his time on, and it was what many of the protesters at last Saturday’s 9/12 march on Washington were talking about as I made my way through the crowd. It is a fear based in ideology, in the insecurity of the times and in the evolving nature of the political press.

It is also the message behind Rep. Joe Wilson’s outburst last week. “You lie,” was more than just a disagreement over policy, or even the interpretation of policy. It was an accusation that the President of the United States was not the man he says he is, even if it does not take long to explain the facts behind his utterances. What is happening, I suspect, is something more fundamental than just the coarsening of politics and the 24-hour-news cycle that President Obama discussed last night on 60 Minutes. It is also a symptom of the severing of information streams, the next step in the Balkanization of the news business. People are not only seeking out the opinions and political spin they want from the information sources, but the very facts they want. And if the facts are not readily available, a preoccupation with “the unknown” is a fitting substitute.