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Obama’s appointees: some strong, some not, Vanderbilt expert finds

A Vanderbilt University political scientist’s study of President Obama’s appointments during his first six months in office finds some agencies are receiving significantly more qualified presidential appointees than others.

“In general, the president has selected appointees with credentials that reflect strong job competence for agencies dealing with issues high on his priority list,” David Lewis, professor of political science, said. “The traits that we are talking about include previous agency experience, work in previous administrations and higher education levels. On the other hand, a review of the qualifications of appointees in some other agencies is more troubling.”

Lewis and Gabriel Horton, a junior in Vanderbilt’s College of Arts and Science, used publicly available resources, including the Federal Yellow Book, to collect data on all Obama appointments during the administration’s first six months. They found that appointees working in agencies that are not responsible for key Obama administration priorities tend to have less impressive credentials for government work. “They are more likely to have worked on the campaign or in another political job prior to their appointment,” Lewis said.

He emphasized that presidents make appointments based not only on an individual’s ability to drive the administration’s agenda. “Government jobs are an important source of political capital for the president,” Lewis said. “The shrewd distribution of federal jobs helps presidents accomplish their electoral and political goals. However, Michael Brown, the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and David Safavian, the government’s former chief procurement officer, are examples of how presidential appointees can create enormous problems for an administration.

During George W. Bush’s presidency, Brown resigned after being widely criticized for his handling of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. Safavian was convicted of lying to investigators about his dealings with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

A second trend that Lewis identified is the president’s placement of politically connected but less qualified candidates in agencies that are generally liberal in their orientation. These include the Education and Housing and Urban Development departments.

Lewis found that the persons appointed by Obama to agencies with more moderate or conservative reputations tend to have previous government experience and higher education levels. These agencies include the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and Justice.

“One theory for this pattern is that potential Democratic patronage appointees prefer jobs in agencies that will advance their career prospects within the party or the constellation of groups around the party,” Lewis said. “For Democrats, these would be jobs in areas such as labor, the environment and housing. This coincides with the president’s interests since a president needs many of the best qualified appointees to run agencies that do not share his or her views.”

Lewis said there are important exceptions to this general trend. Almost one half of the major Obama donors and bundlers who have received presidential appointments have been named ambassadors of various countries, including the United Kingdom and Japan, both considered major players on the world stage.

While most political observers focus on the approximately 500 Senate-confirmed presidential appointments, Lewis said it is important not to overlook lower positions. “They often have direct influence over program management and can be the source of tawdry scandals,” he said.

Two examples are Monica Goodling and Kyle Sampson, appointees to the Senior Executive Service by former President George W. Bush. Goodling, former deputy director of public affairs for the Department of Justice, and Sampson, former chief of staff to then-U.S. Attorney Alberto Gonzales, left their positions after becoming embroiled in the political controversy surrounding the firings of several U.S. attorneys.

“Previous political science research demonstrates that federal programs run by appointees perform systematically worse than programs administered by career professionals, partly because of a disparity in background training and experience,” Lewis said. That is an important reason, Lewis noted, for focusing on the quality of the appointees as opposed to the speed of the president’s decisions.

Lewis is the author of The Politics of Presidential Appointments: Political Control and Bureaucratic Performance, which will receive the prestigious Richard E. Neustadt Award at an upcoming meeting of the American Political Science Association. The annual award is for the best book on the U.S. presidency published during the previous year.

Media contact: Ann Marie Deer Owens, 615-322-NEWS