Union University

Union University Department of Political Science

Department of Political Science



The Czar Has No Clothes

Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Oct 24, 2009

            In Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale, an Emperor obsessed with clothes hires some swindlers to make him the most beautiful clothes in the world. In making the nonexistent clothes, the swindlers claim that the cloth is invisible to the unfit and stupid. Not wanting to be seen as such, the Emperor and his ministers pretend that the clothes are beautiful. Finally as the emperor parades in public in his new clothes, it takes a small boy in the crowd to state the obvious truth that “the Emperor has no clothes!” 
            Similarly despite two Senate committee hearings on the propriety of czars and the protestations over former Green Energy Czar Van Jones and other czars, the simple fact is that the “Czars have no clothes” or, more appropriately, no power.
            When we think czar, we think of the all powerful Russian rulers. And when we combine this conception of an autocratic ruler with the sheer number of czars in the Obama Administration (32), the government takeover of banks and the auto industry, and government dictating pay for executives, it is easy to understand how some fear the rise of socialism in America.
            Yet, the fear of czars is misplaced. Most czars are simply presidential aides who coordinate the development and implementation of policy. They have official titles like director, special assistant, or special representative. The media calls them czars due to their broad portfolio and to signal the importance the Administration gives these issues. But czars have no staff, no budget authority, and no legal authority. Thus, they have no ability to command cabinet members or anyone else. Their power comes from their personal reputation, personal expertise, and ability to speak for the president. And few, outside of the foreign policy czars like Richard Holbrook (Afghanistan-Pakistan Czar) and George Mitchell (Middle East Czar), possess this.
A good example of a czar is Nancy-Ann DeParle, the Health Czar. She, unlike any other czar, has a West Wing office and this proximity to Obama indicates her importance. Yet, her primary job is developing policy and lobbying congress. In this, she works closely with Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, and Budget Director Peter Orzag. All four persuade, cajole, and pressure but none command congress to produce a specific health care reform bill.
And we need to remember that czars did not originate with Obama. FDR appointed czars to help manage the war effort and every president since has appointed at least one czar.
In short, czars simply help the president do his job because he cannot do everything himself. They can only exercise real power if the Senate confirms them to hold a statutorily created position with express powers, like Regulatory Czar Cass Sunstein, or if they eventually move to the cabinet like Bush White House staffers Condi Rice, Alberto Gonzalez, and Margaret Spellings.
There are some real concerns though. First, Congress fears the White House is making policy rather than departments which limits their oversight ability. But the simple fact is that White Houses have centralized power since Richard Nixon. Presidents, concerned about reelection and their legacy, prefer to make major decisions rather than rely on departments that may have different political interests.
Second, no clear lines of authority may produce chaotic decision making. We have seen strong National Security Advisors like Henry Kissinger under Nixon and Zbignew Brezinski under Jimmy Carter eclipse the State Department. Yet in the end, presidents are held responsible for the decisions they make and the people they appoint. Processes that work well redound to their benefit. Those that do not work well result in political scandals or failed policies.
Third, empowering czars to make decisions leaves little role for cabinet members as policy makers. If cabinet members are left as middle managers, it may be more difficult to recruit qualified, prominent members for these positions who command the respect of the world, markets, and other political actors which is needed in a crisis.
So while concerns over the expertise, statements, and policy views of czars are legitimate, we have little to fear from czars themselves. After all, the “Czar has no clothes.”  


Article orginally appeared in the October 23rd edition of the Jackson Sun