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Of Czars and Secretaries


Trying to respond to the concerns of fringe political movements is a bit like pouring water on a grease fire: It seems like it should work, but it really, really doesn't. That's why I've basically stayed out of this "czar" nonsense. But with Mitt Romney lamely jumping on the bandwagon, it's worth making one point: Calling someone a "czar" is a piece of gentle mockery. Compared with appointees who travel through Senate confirmation, they're not powerful. In Washington, you don't want to be a "czar." You want to be a "secretary."

Tom Daschle is a good example. His nomination blew up amid the Senate Finance Committee's financial audit. But there was a reason he was undergoing the grueling confirmation process rather than simply serving as director of the White House Office of Health Reform: Being confirmed as secretary of health and human services would give him more power. In particular, it would put him in charge of the Department of Health and Human Services, which administers Medicare and Medicaid, among much else. Simply serving as the White House's health czar would have meant a much more constrained gig.

Van Jones was a special adviser for Green Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, or as the media referred to him, a "green jobs czar." He would've rather been secretary of the Environmental Protection Agency. Ron Bloom is the senior adviser for the president's Automotive Task Force, or the "car czar." But he'd have a lot more power as secretary of the Treasury. Richard Clarke served George W. Bush as national coordinator for security, infrastructure protection, and counter-terrorism, or the "counter-terrorism czar," but he'd have had a lot more pull as secretary of defense.

And that, of course, is the joke: In Washington, the czars lack power and the secretaries have enormous clout. Get it? 'Cause Glenn Beck sure doesn't.

Photo credit: Helayne Seidman for The Washington Post.

By Ezra Klein  |  September 21, 2009; 11:07 AM ET
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everything you say is so but I believe Glenn Beck does get it... he knows have no power...

it's just one more thing to gin up the lunatics, you don't think he really believed FEMA was putting together detainment camps but he said they were anyway.

and a "Czar" is Russian right, you know a communist right...yeah that's the ticket President Obama is installing Russian Communist Czars, no wonder he backed down on those missiles in what are they going to do when Alabama sends its air force against them?

Somebody call Glenn Beck quick I've gotta a story for him...

Posted by: teoc2 | September 21, 2009 11:28 AM | Report abuse

Keeping track of all the things Glenn Beck doesn't get is a losing battle.

The czar thing also bugged me because it's not an official title. Like if people would have called for the resignation of Tom Delay back in the day because a hammer can't be the Majority Leader. After all, hammers are inanimate objects and it's an affront to American values to have a lifeless tool at such a high office.

Posted by: etdean1 | September 21, 2009 11:31 AM | Report abuse

Not to think too hard about what goes through the wingnut mind, but on a historical level, the communists killed the Czar (and his ministers as Anastasia screamed in vain), so how can one be pro-communist and pro-Czar at the same time if they were mortal enemies? Even for the crazies, doesn't there have to be some sort of logical consistency?

But the really crazy thing is that Glenn Beck's viewers actually think these "czars" will be given land and control over the local populace. They're stupid and nuts!

Every passing day feels like we're one step closer to the dystopian future of Idiocracy.

Posted by: nylund | September 21, 2009 11:43 AM | Report abuse

I think we should use "honcho" instead of "czar"

Posted by: bdballard | September 21, 2009 11:43 AM | Report abuse

Wow, Glen Beck wears a lot of makeup.

"it's an affront to American values to have a lifeless tool at such a high office."

I said that many times during DeLay's reign of terror.

Posted by: JEinATL | September 21, 2009 11:45 AM | Report abuse

nyfund "how can one be pro-communist and pro-Czar at the same time..." looking for logical consistency with these people will only give you a headache.

how can you be a fascist and a socialist, weren't the socialist among the first to be put in death camps by the Nazis? and just who was fighting who in Spain's Civil war...

Beck gets it, those stirring the pot get it and they know there are many in this country who don't get it.

It is about creating and amplifying fear. They don't have Dick Cheney to play with Homeland Security's threat level anymore so they have to resort to more crude tactics.

The Republican's have used fear for so long to gain power they have become a one-trick pony, without fear they've got nothing except saying no.

Posted by: teoc2 | September 21, 2009 12:04 PM | Report abuse

The EPA has an administrator, not a secretary.

Posted by: thehersch | September 21, 2009 12:39 PM | Report abuse

If the *defenders* of these positions are arguing that these people don't actually do anything, why do we need these positions at all?

Posted by: tomtildrum | September 21, 2009 3:08 PM | Report abuse

As nylund said, the czar was overthrown by the communists.

Posted by: itch | September 21, 2009 8:46 PM | Report abuse


I believe you forgot to mention that Van Jones is a communist who has the president's ear. Van Jones couldn't get a job as a janitor in the White House with his background.

What does this say about Obama? Why is he surrounding himself with all of these radicals?

Is socialism the "change" that we all voted for?

Posted by: WrongfulDeath | September 21, 2009 9:29 PM | Report abuse

Compared with appointees who travel through Senate confirmation, they're not powerful. In Washington, you don't want to be a "czar." You want to be a "secretary."

But Ezra you're not getting the point. They'd never make it through Senate confirmation so this someplace that any President, Democrat or Republican, can stash his political think tank people. THey're still very dangerous. I'd expect most people would have an issue with one Karl Rove, right? He was basically a Bush czar, no? Of course you can't tell President's they can't have confidant's but when confidant's are as radical as they come from either side they must be reeled in.

Posted by: visionbrkr | September 21, 2009 10:12 PM | Report abuse

visiobrkr, there are 7000 political appointees in government which change with every administration. Some require senate confirmation. Some don't. This is actually the result of a reform where the civil service system was established, insulating most government employees from the risk of being replaced during a change of administration.

While I do realize that most right-wingers have no interest in understanding the workings of government and accept it as a quirk, what I am truly disgusted by is the invention of a "scandal" over nothing-- merely an unhinged emotional need to lash out at Obama for no reason, at the behest of Glenn Beck. By advice for conservatives like visiopbrkr is to find other, more productive emotional outlets rather than going off on an offended rampage simply because you were told to.

Posted by: tyromania | September 22, 2009 8:30 AM | Report abuse

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