During a presidential election year, public attention naturally turns toward candidates and campaigns. Newscasters and media experts dissect polls and campaign strategy. The best prepared candidates, however, are thinking beyond voting day toward postelection planning. The immensity of transition planning requires that responsible presidential campaigns begin planning months and even more than a year in advance. Governor George W. Bush began planning for a transition to the presidency in April 1999, well before he had even secured a vote to become his party's nominee, much less president of the United States. Presidential candidates do the planning out of sight from the campaign and the press. If word leaks out about postelection planning, this can create uncertainty and division among the candidate's campaign staff and appear presumptuous to voters. Yet candidates who refuse to plan cannot make up for it in the short period between Election Day and inauguration.
The task of transitioning to become president is enormous (Burke 2000, 2004; Patterson and Pfiffner 2001; Pfiffner 1996). On the personnel side, the president must fill 3,000 to 4,000 positions in the federal executive establishment (Lewis 2008; Patterson 2008; Patterson and Pfiffner 2001; Pfiffner 1996). One-quarter of these posts require Senate confirmation, which adds a layer of complexity to their selection. (1) Presidents do so under time constraints and tremendous scrutiny from supporters, Congress, and the press.
The stakes in these decisions are high. Missteps in early appointments distract from the president's priorities and can leave the president significantly understaffed in key policy areas. For example, President Obama's nomination of former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle to head the Department of Health and Human Services foundered on revelations about Daschle's tax problems, hindering the president's work on health care reform. The president was also slow to fill vacancies in the Treasury Department, where Secretary Timothy Geithner was the only confirmed nominee during the crucial early period after the nomination. (2) Missteps in these early appointments contribute to the Washington community's first impressions of the president. The willingness of Washington insiders to bend to the president's wishes depends upon insiders' assessment of whether going along with the president will cost them more than it gains them. A president who bungles appointments early in his presidency sends the signal that supporting the president is risky. Early missteps are also a distraction since media stories focus on these issues rather than the president's policy priorities. If presidents lose control of the news cycle, it is hard for the president to refocus the nation's attention on their policy agenda.
Ultimately, given the substantial authority delegated to government executives in areas such as the environment, health, and foreign policy, these appointments can have a significant influence on policy outputs (Moe 1982, 1985; Randall 1979; Stewart and Cromartie 1982; Wood 1990; Wood and Anderson 1993; Wood and Waterman 1991, 1994). Picking the right persons for key appointed jobs can lead to huge policy changes that have dramatic consequences for voters and key stakeholders. It is hard to imagine any assessment of President Obama's first term divorced from the actions, advice, and infighting of his economic team (Suskind 2011). Similarly, President George W. Bush's ultimate legacy is determined in part by the actions of appointees such as Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and Douglas Feith at the Department of Defense, and Michael Brown at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Cooper and Block 2007; Woodward 2002).
Presidents tackle their personnel responsibilities differently. They prioritize different positions and display different levels of personal involvement. Yet, all presidents face broadly similar concerns and incentives, to manage the federal executive establishment and use the pool of available jobs to achieve policy and political goals. They accomplish the latter often through the shrewd use of appointments as a form of political currency (Heclo 1977; Lewis 2008; Mackenzie 1981; Newland 1987; Pfiffner 1996; Tolchin and Tolchin 1971, 2010).
In this article, I review the current state of presidential personnel politics, borrowing heavily from earlier published work. I review how modern presidents face similar choices but also how the environment confronting presidents has been changing. I describe the causes of an increase in the number and penetration of appointees and how presidents have asserted more control of personnel selection, aided by an augmented White House personnel operation. The article describes a relatively stable number of appointees since 1980 and suggests that one reason for the stability is concerns for management performance. I conclude by making suggestions for reforming the personnel system equally applicable to either party's candidate for the presidency in 2012.
Presidents and Personnel
When President Obama was campaigning for the presidency in 2008, he regularly criticized the incumbent president for his expansive use of executive power. Once in office, however, President Obama's views on executive power changed. (3) Notable among his actions were his continued use of signing statements and his use of executive orders. During the year preceding the presidential election, President Obama made significant policy changes in education, student loans, mortgage repayment, and prescription drugs as part of his "we can't wait campaign" to work around an unsympathetic Congress. (4) In personnel, the president appointed big donors to key ambassadorial posts, a practiced he criticized in 2007. The president also asserted new power to name recess appointees during a period when Congress did not believe it was in recess. (5)
President Obama's transformation is not surprising to presidency scholars. Presidents have a dramatically different vantage point and incentives than they did as legislators or candidates. Presidents are held accountable by voters for the functioning of the entire government and, confronted with these high expectations, presidents naturally grasp for the power that will enable them to meet these expectations. In the executive branch, presidents are held responsible for the policy choices and performance of between 2 and 3 million civilian employees working in 15 cabinet departments and 55 to 60 independent agencies. Presidents respond to this awesome responsibility by using their power over the number and types of appointees to control agency activities.
Of course, presidents try and meet public expectations through other means as well. For example, they propose legislation, make public appeals, and direct foreign policy. However, the successful pursuit of these activities also involves presidential personnel. Appointments are an important political resource that presidents use in working with interest groups, the political party, and key members of Congress (Heclo 1977; Mackenzie 1981; Tolchin and Tolchin 1971, 2010; Weko 1995). Presidents try to satisfy key groups through naming prominent members to administration posts. They use patronage to reward party members for work on the campaign and to unite party factions. Members of Congress ask the president to name their favorites to administration jobs, and presidents use the giving and withholding of jobs to ease the passage of their favored legislation. More generally, presidents know that publicly rewarding administration supporters with jobs encourages further work for the party or president.
While all modern presidents, by virtue of their institutional position, share similar incentives with regard to personnel, their decision-making environment has changed over time, partly as a result of the actions of previous presidents (Moe 1985). Past presidential choices influence the resources and rules confronting successive presidents, and presidents learn from the mistakes and successes of their predecessors. (6) Of particular note in the last half century, presidents have sought an increase in the number and penetration of appointees in the federal executive establishment, and they have played a larger role in the selection of appointees, aided by an increasingly sophisticated White House personnel operation.
Increases in Appointees
Since the publication of the Plum Book in 1960, the number of appointed positions has almost doubled both in total numbers and as a percentage of federal civilian employees (Figure 1). Presidents, with the cooperation of Congress, have increased the number of appointees. Some of the increase is the natural result of an increase in the number of federal programs and agencies (Light 1995). When Congress creates new programs or agencies, they create new Senate-confirmed positions to manage these endeavors.
A significant source of the increase in appointees, however, is the desire of presidents to secure more control of the policy-making process within federal agencies. As the federal government has grown in size, scope, and complexity, Congress has delegated increasing amounts of policy-making authority to federal agencies. Presidents naturally have sought more control over the policy-making apparatus. One particular focus of presidents has been the agencies that control the levers of presidential governance (Lewis and Moe 2009). They have increased the number and penetration of appointees most significantly in agencies responsible for budgets, personnel, and regulatory review. Between 1960 and 2008, the number of appointees in the Bureau of the Budget/Office of Management and Budget (budgets, regulatory review) increased from 11 to 37 appointees, while the number of appointees in the Civil Service Commission/ Office of Personnel Management increased from 3 to 30. The effect of this can be seen most clearly in...