The Lure of the Czars

It took the Romanovs almost 300 years to produce 18 czars. Obama did it in less than 100 days.


There's just something about a man in epaulets.

Despite our distaste for royalty and titles, and particular ill will toward Russian autocrats, Americans just can't seem to get enough of the word czar. We have been using and abusing the term since at least the 1830s, handing out the title to central bankers (allies of President Andrew Jackson lobbed the word at his foe Nicholas Biddle, president of the Bank of the United States) and even presidents (during Reconstruction Andrew Johnson was lampooned as "the Czar uv all the Amerikas.") The real czars were still too close for comfort at that point, though, and being associated with inbred Russian tyrants didn't sit well with prominent Americans. But the last real czar was deposed in 1917, and thereafter Americans started feeling a bit warmer and fuzzier about the title, bestowing it on the first baseball commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, appointed in 1920 to clean up the mess left by the previous year's Black Sox scandal.

President Barack Obama is taking the practice of naming czars to new heights. As Foreign Policy points out, with the selection of "border czar" Alan Bersin, the Obama administration surpassed the Romanovs in its production of czars. It took those old Russkies 300 years to produce 18 czars. It took Obama less than 100 days.

A quick czar rundown reveals a motley crew. There's Carol Browner, the "energy czar," filling one of the older czar slots. It was first created by President Richard Nixon in 1973 as the Director of the Office of Energy Policy, which became the Federal Energy Administration, and joined the Cabinet as the Department of Energy in 1977. "Regulatory czar" Cass Sunstein will be heading up the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, but the readiness with which he was given the czar sobriquet suggests he'll be bringing that obscure office into the spotlight. The "Guantanamo closure czar" is a "top level diplomatic position" to be occupied by Daniel Fried. His job is to travel around the world begging people to take back their own terrorists as the U.S. tries to close the terrorist detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. In theory, he'll be a short-lived czar, since the whole job is supposed to be wrapped up a year from now—the Paul I of the Obama administration. Then there's "urban czar" Adolfo Carrion, Jr., "faith-based czar" Joshua DuBois, "non-proliferation czar" Gary Samore, and "terrorism czar" John Brennan. White House science advisor John Holdren has been called the "weather czar." This office is entirely separate from that of Van Jones, the "green czar." Last, but not least, while the Surgeon General sports some impressive epaulets, it's the Secretary of Health and Human Services, in this case Nancy-Ann DeParle, who usually gets the title "health czar."

Reason opined against a Cabinet-level "high tech czar" in 2000 ("Close, but No Big Czar"), arguing instead for a high-tech counselor, a whisperer in the president's ear. Or would he have been a high-tech Rasputin? No matter. In 2009, we have our "tech czar " after all, Vivek Kundra. This office is not to be confused with the impending creation of the "cyber security czar." At least we're not quite to the level of the U.K. yet, which is boasting a Twitter Czar, aka the "director of digital engagement."

This list doesn't even include the funny czars, like the White House "flower czar," or the farm team czars like Virginia's "aging czar" (not a czar who is getting on in years, but rather a czar of services for the old).

The czar is a perfect techocratic role—appealing to Obama, who has been much praised for "surrounding himself with smart people." The appeal of the czar rests on the belief that if we could just figure out the right smart, competent, well-intentioned person to put charge, everything would go more smoothly. This is often true on a micro-level. Having someone in charge of a school field trip, or a division inside a large company is a good idea. But the bigger and more complex the problem, the less likely even the most impressive technocrat will be able to set things in order, especially since these czars lack the very thing that defined the Russian czars: total control over the lives of their subjects. Take the case of Carter's two "inflation czars." Neither political mover-and-shaker Robert Strauss, nor the more academically-inclined Alfred Kahn, made a dent in the inflation problem. But no matter. If inflation picks up, watch for the appointment of a new inflation czar in short order. Rather than solving the problems they are appointed to grapple with, czars tend to wind up building or restructuring bureaucratic agencies, issuing a bunch of suggestions that may or may not be considered given the political climate, and then taking the blame when the problem isn't solved by the end of their stint as a czar. And that's the best-case scenario.

It's no accident that the Obama administration's efforts to get a grip on the messy financial markets and domestic economy have wound up creating a few new czars, including" TARP czar" Herb Allison, and even a czar charged with watching over the massive amounts of money pouring out of Washington, "stimulus czar" and former Secret Service agent Earl Devaney. Naming czars is about trying to get control, or failing that, trying to give the illusion of control. It's about projecting an image of experts at the helm.

Obama said there wouldn't be a "car czar" after the bailouts—perhaps some of the old stigma still clings. But somehow we wound up with one after all, in the person of hedge fund honcho Steve Rattner. Large-scale projects with the aim of restructuring swaths of our economy or society are catnip to the technocrats who become czars, and now is their moment.

It's not all bad news on the czar front, though. The Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, one of the czariest (and scariest?) of czars, has been demoted from Cabinet-level status. The presence of longtime drug warrior Vice President Joe Biden in the cabinet made the demotion logical, but the current occupant of the position, Gil Kerlikowske, has been just fine at making headlines, Cabinet-level status or no. In fact, the name "drug czar" was applied to this gig in writing for the first time[PDF] when the office was established in 1982, by none other than Biden himself, then the junior Senator from Delaware.

The real reason we just can't manage to depose our various czars? Headline writers. You try fitting "Office of Management and Budget administrator for e-government and information technology" or "Special Advisor for Green Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation at the White House Council on Environmental Quality" into a 20 character slot.

But no matter how you spell it, czar is a four-letter word.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is an associate editor at Reason magazine.