Obama Team Less Than Half Complete

Seven months into his administration, President Obama has only 43 percent of his top appointees in place. Which, while shocking, isn’t at all unusual  Peter Baker for NYT:

Of more than 500 senior policymaking positions requiring Senate confirmation, just 43 percent have been filled — a reflection of a White House that grew more cautious after several nominations blew up last spring, a Senate that is intensively investigating nominees and a legislative agenda that has consumed both.

While career employees or holdovers fill many posts on a temporary basis, Mr. Obama does not have his own people enacting programs central to his mission. He is trying to fix the financial markets but does not have an assistant treasury secretary for financial markets. He is spending more money on transportation than anyone since Dwight D. Eisenhower but does not have his own inspector general watching how the dollars are used. He is fighting two wars but does not have an Army secretary.

He sent Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to Africa to talk about international development but does not have anyone running the Agency for International Development. He has invited major powers to a summit on nuclear nonproliferation but does not have an assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation.


The process of assembling a new administration has frustrated presidents for years, a point brought home when George W. Bush received the now-famous memorandum titled “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike U.S.” eight years ago this month but still did not have most of his national security team in place when planes smashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

All parties vowed to fix the process, and Mr. Obama has a more intact national security team than his predecessor at this point. But even in this area, vital offices remain open. No Obama appointee is running the Transportation Security Administration, the Customs and Border Protection agency, the Drug Enforcement Administration or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Mr. Obama still does not have an intelligence chief at the Department of Homeland Security, nor a top civilian in charge of military readiness at the Pentagon.

Mr. Obama is far enough along in his presidency that some early appointees are already leaving even before the last of the first round have assumed their posts. Among those who have left already is the person charged with filling the empty offices, Donald H. Gips, who quit as presidential personnel director to go to South Africa as ambassador last month.


Measuring the progress in appointments depends on what positions are counted and who is doing the counting. The White House Transition Project counts 543 policymaking jobs requiring Senate confirmation in four top executive ranks. As of last week, Mr. Obama had announced his selections for 319 of those positions, and the Senate had confirmed 236, or 43 percent of the top echelon of government. Other scholars have slightly different but similar tallies.

The White House prefers to include ambassadors, United States attorneys, marshals and judges, who are also subject to Senate votes but are not counted by the scholars. By that count, Mr. Obama has won confirmation of 304 nominees, compared with 301 for Mr. Bush, 253 for Bill Clinton and 212 for the first President George Bush at this point in their administrations. If lower-ranking senior executive service officials and political appointees who do not require Senate approval are counted, the White House said it had installed 1,830 people, at least 50 percent more than any of the last three presidents had at this stage.

It’s worth noting that one has to read seven “paragraphs” (NYT style apparently requires treating most sentences as complete thoughts and justifying a new paragraph) into the piece to start to get a sense that this is par for the course and into the 13th “paragraph” before this is stated outright.

Administration officials and some others focus on the ridiculousness of the vetting and confirmation processes which, I agree, need to be tamed. More obviously, however, is that question as to why so many of these positions are presidential appointees rather than career professionals to begin with.

Obviously, cabinet secretaries and senior advisors in controversial policy areas ought serve at the pleasure of the president. It just makes sense to have people there to enthusiastically push the elected executive’s agenda.

But why are the law enforcement agencies headed up by political appointees, often with no competence in the field? Shouldn’t transportation security, customs enforcement, drug and firearm law, federal marshals and the like by carried out in a non-political fashion by trained professionals? Ditto inspectors general and U.S. attorneys. The head of the FBI is an appointee but one who serves a ten-year term. Why not that model? Or just senior executive service careerists?

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Rodney Dill says:

    …guess they’re not complete idiots…. (rimshot)

  2. Eneils Bailey says:

    Most of those positions will be filled soon.
    All of their candidates that were sent to prison for tax evasion are due to be released in the next few months.

  3. yetanotherjohn says:

    Could this be an opportunity for a candidate. The UK has a “shadow” government with someone assigned by the party to be the expert on that area. When a question comes up, they know who to ask about it. When they come into power, they have a team ready to go. Doing the same thing provides the opposition more targets, but it also provides more soldiers in the field. Announcing the selections after the convention (or privately announcing this in case there is any issue with the background check) would let the candidate start working with the team. Presumably, any area that we have a senior appointed official, we would also have people they could meet to solicit votes/funds for the candidate.

  4. PD Shaw says:

    By that count, Mr. Obama has won confirmation of 304 nominees, compared with 301 for Mr. Bush, 253 for Bill Clinton and 212 for the first President George Bush at this point in their administrations.

    I wish we had better numbers to work with than these. I believe the operative number for comparison is the number of positions which each President had failed to nominate anybody.

    We know Obama has not announced nominees for 224 positions. How does that compare with the other Presidents at this point in time?

    Plus Bush I and II both faced a Senate from the opposing party (Bush II had a 50/50 Senate for a couple of months until Jeffords switched to D).

  5. Wayne says:

    You have it right. It is unfair to compare a President who has failed to nominate people for the positions against a President who has nominated people but the Senate refuse to vote on the nomination.

    As for long time appointees, I think that goes against our government concept. A few exceptions maybe but the idea is change with new Presidents. It’s about accountability to the voters through elections not career people with expertise. Remember the top two Command positions of the military are held by Civilians with the top one being solely determine by election. Some of which have little military expertise.

  6. An Interested Party says:

    Apparently, the president’s record compares favorably to Reagan’s at this point in his presidency…also, a majority of your own party controlling Congress doesn’t stop senators from placing holds on your nominees, like the two Kansas senators have done with the nominee for Secretary of the Army…