Obama fashions a government of many czars

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Name a top issue and President Barack Obama has probably got a “czar” responsible for tackling it.

A bank bailout czar? Herb Allison. Energy czar? Carol Browner.

There’s a drug czar, a U.S. border czar, an urban czar, a regulatory czar, a stimulus accountability czar, an Iran czar, a Middle East czar, and a czar for both Afghanistan and Pakistan, which in Washington-speak has been lumped together into a policy area called Af-Pak.

There are upward of 20 such top officials, all with lengthy official titles but known in the media as czars, and next week there will be one more, when Obama appoints a czar for cyber-security who will be charged with improving the security of computer networks.

“In short, America’s economic prosperity in the 21st century will depend on cyber-security,” Obama said on Friday.

Experts say Obama’s reliance on czars can be helpful by focusing attention on a big issue and making someone responsible for it, but that it can also lead to turf fights and add another cumbersome bureaucratic layer.

Or, as Republican Senator John McCain likes to say, Obama has “more czars than the Romanovs,” who ruled Russia for three centuries.

On cyber-security specifically, some with deep knowledge of U.S. national security issues say having a central coordinator in charge would be helpful.

Ken Wainstein, who was former President George W. Bush’s homeland security adviser, said the issues inherent to cyber-security cross many different government agencies, from the Department of Homeland Security to the ultra-secret National Security Agency, to the Defense Department, and on.

“It’s a big issue that has a lot government players so it needs some coordination,” said Wainstein, now at the law firm O’Melveny & Myers.

“It also helps to raise the profile of the issue within the bureaucracy to ensure the issue is addressed aggressively. Our cyber systems are being attacked on a regular basis,” he said.


Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas political science professor, said that in some respects Obama looks to be relying on a formula from his successful election campaign last year -- making top people responsible for various parts of his sprawling operation.

“It does seem to facilitate going outside formal channels and creating ad hoc solutions,” he said. “I think it makes sense. It’s the way he operates.”

Many analysts are carefully watching what happens at Obama’s State Department, where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in overall charge but has a number of top envoys working on many central issues.

Veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke has the Afghanistan-Pakistan portfolio, Dennis Ross is the Iran point person and George Mitchell is the Middle East envoy.

Buchanan said it is up to Obama to make sure they all work together and that rival power centers do not develop that compete for the president’s favor.

“The key is whether the president is adept at managing the kind of pathologies that can flow out of setting up these rival power centers,” Buchanan said.

Linda Fowler, a professor of government at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, said presidents often appoint czars in a symbolic move to show they care about an issue. They also are trying to control a sprawling bureaucracy, she added.

“Presidents of both parties have done this because they are all dealing with this problem, this huge bureaucracy that has built up over the last 100 years. All presidents seem to have this idea that if they can just get it in the right direction, they can redirect the Queen Mary,” she said, referring to the massive ocean liner.

Editing by Will Dunham