The Rose Garden: Obama on a Record Pace for Nominations

Posted April 17, 2009 at 5:29pm

President Barack Obama is setting a blistering pace for making top-level nominations. He has eclipsed the number of nominations made by former President George W. Bush at this point in his presidency, and he’s on target to secure the most confirmed appointments of any modern president in his first 100 days.

[IMGCAP(1)]Obama started off fast on the personnel front late last year, but he soon found himself withdrawing nominees amid controversy and coming under fire for failing to staff the government during a time of crisis. But according to the nonpartisan White House Transition Project, Obama may be on track to break the record set by President Ronald Reagan of 83 successful confirmations by the end of the first 100 days — that is, by close of business on April 29.

By last week, Obama was moving at nearly double the pace Bush set in 2001, according to the Transition Project.

As of the April 14 mark of their presidencies, both Obama and Bush had announced nearly 200 appointments to posts that require Senate confirmation. But Obama had actually sent to the Senate almost twice as many — 126 to Bush’s 67. And the Senate has confirmed 60 for Obama compared to 30 in 2001. Both Obama and Bush faced a Senate run by their own party, as did Reagan in 1980.

Nevertheless, Obama has a ways to go before the government can be called “up and running.— Obama has announced less than half of the total Senate-confirmed Cabinet department positions he must fill, and only 10 percent have been confirmed. But the Transition Project’s latest tallies make clear that he is moving at a far faster pace than generally understood and is holding his own against previous modern presidents.

University of North Carolina professor Terry Sullivan, who is tracking Obama’s nominations for the Transition Project, said the Obama White House’s progress is built on the willingness of Obama’s aides to absorb long-running research into how to staff the government

“I think they’ve all along been geared up for this sort of movement,— Sullivan said, suggesting that decades of efforts to highlight the need to get a government in place more quickly are coming to fruition, he said.

Ironically, a lot of credit goes to Bush, whose team — intensely focused on the need for a smooth transition during a time of war — prepared fanatically to hand over the reins. Clay Johnson, the Office of Management and Budget deputy director of management under Bush, has been echoing the refrain around town, “one hundred confirmed appointments in one hundred days,— according to Sullivan.

Johnson served as the key White House contact as Bush officials hashed through on transition issues with both the Obama presidential campaign and that of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Johnson worked closely with both John Podesta, who chaired the Obama transition, and Chris Lu, who was its executive director and now serves as Cabinet secretary in the White House.

Obama startled observers soon after the election by making a series of high-level appointments in quick succession. He almost immediately named then-House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) to be chief of staff. Less than a month after being elected, Obama had unveiled most of the top players on his economic and national security teams.

But the process suddenly slowed considerably, and it appeared Obama may have moved too fast. A few high-profile picks were forced to withdraw amid a whiff of scandal, most notably Obama’s choices for Commerce secretary, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, and for secretary of Health and Human Services, former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). In a move that turned questions about the process into ridicule, Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) accepted Obama’s offer to replace Richardson and then decided he’d rather not.

Soon, Obama was being accused of failing to get people into positions needed to fight two wars, fend off Osama bin Laden, and cure an economy that seemed barely clinging to life.

The Obama hiring lull that ensued earlier this year was widely attributed to an effort at emergency surgery on the vetting process as unexpected problems popped up — particularly with people’s taxes — that seemed eminently findable prior to the selection.

But Sullivan noted that there may also be a natural pause that occurs after an initial burst of appointments. He said the transition staff devoted to headhunting is about twice as large as the White House staff assigned that task, so work that proceeded apace in November and December suddenly needed to be done by half the people — who were simultaneously trying to figure out how to log on to their new White House desktops.

But in recent weeks, the nominations have been coming in fast and furious, with a new set of appointees trumpeted by the White House press office several times a week — and sometimes daily.

Obama on March 23 moved to fill what many believed to be a gaping hole, naming three to top positions at Treasury, including the nomination of Neal Wolin to be deputy secretary. Nevertheless, Obama as of last week had unveiled just a third of his Treasury nominees, slightly less than the average across the Cabinet. And so far, Geithner is the only Treasury nominee — out of 33 that must ultimately be appointed — to have been confirmed.

Bush at this point in his administration had pushed three Treasury officials through the Senate.