Skip to Content

Vanderbilt News

OP-ED: Shot at unthinkable: an end to cronyism

Nov. 17, 2008, 1:05 PM

Like other presidents before him, President-elect Barack Obama will be under immense pressure to reward campaign workers, state and local party officials, interest groups and key donors with positions in the new administration.

Patronage pressures are likely to be greater on Obama than on other modern presidents because the Democratic Party has more constituencies to satisfy than the Republican Party and Obama’s organization has mobilized more donors, workers and volunteers than any campaign in recent memory.

Obama ran his campaign focusing on the need for change. If he really wants change, he can start by changing how patronage and cronyism works in Washington.

Newly elected presidents make an astounding 3,500 political appointments. How many Fortune 500 companies fire their top 3,500 executives every four to eight years? What this means is that new presidents have to scramble to find people to fill thousands of posts in an incredibly short period of time. This makes selecting people for competence rather than connections that much more difficult.

For some positions, like those in the Cabinet, the personnel process is relatively rational. Modern presidents employ professional recruiters to work alongside their staff to help them identify the best candidates. Of course, lots of political considerations come into play in the selection of nominees, but on the whole, competence is the top consideration.

If only all government positions were filled in this manner. Presidents face irresistible pressure to reward supporters and fulfill obligations to their party by filling agency posts with patronage appointees. Obama’s staff is undoubtedly being besieged by office seekers who have a connection to the campaign, to the party, interest groups or influential patrons in Congress. These people expect jobs, and many will get them. Some will rise to the challenge, some will muddle through in obscurity. But others will embarrass the Obama administration in the same way Michael Brown and Monica Goodling have embarrassed the Bush administration.

Is there a way the Obama administration can avoid falling into this trap? Yes. First, Obama can make sure his personnel operation is a high priority, staffed appropriately and empowered to disappoint a large number of less-qualified office seekers.

Second, Obama can resist the temptation to fill all of the appointed positions at his disposal with political types. Instead, he should cut the number of appointees and fill some key appointed positions from among the ranks of career professionals. These civil servants get a bad rap from elected officials because it is not popular to say anything good about government workers these days. Consider, however, that top career professionals have generally risen through the ranks because of demonstrated competence and their ability to work successfully with both parties. My research shows consistently how competent these professionals are relative to the average appointee by a variety of measures.

Third, Obama could send a strong signal that competence and governing matter more than politics by asking Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to stay on to ensure continuity and to show that Obama plans to govern in a bipartisan fashion.

It’s easy to say you’re going to change Washington during the campaign. Some bold steps early on would make the pledge much more of a reality than Obama’s detractors suggest.

David Lewis is a professor of political science. This opinion piece was originally published Nov. 16 in The Tennessean.

Media Contact: Amy Wolf, (615) 322-NEWS

VU Tweets